Though it is now many decades since, one incredible shower of clear descending notes I heard on my first day of birding still echoes through my memory. The song itself, given only once, was distant, flung from the scrub across the draw to where we stood. Our walk leader was occupied helping us identify a number of other birds that morning, and it was a few weeks before I had my first clear view of the vivid yellow and black-veed chest of a western meadowlark, this one fully abandoned to song. “Spectacular” does not do that vision justice.
Since then, I have learned how much a part of grassland landscapes these meadowlarks are, giving them their most distinctive voice and lending them color on dreary mornings. These seed-eating birds are as characteristic of grassy meadows as their cousins, red-winged blackbirds, are of marsh and reed beds, and though common in southern California, the meadowlark’s fortune has risen and fallen with the human uses of the land over the last two centuries. The advent of ranching and agriculture in the 19th Century must have brought a huge increase in the habitat available for them, concomitant with a great population explosion. Then, as the human population began its own local late 20th Century explosion, and suburbanization stretched across once-farmed hills and valleys, those new meadowlark habitats ceased to exist. From dust to dust.
It always surprises me how many meadowlarks can be crammed into a small field of grass and remain completely invisible. Invisible that is until you step into the field and the birds explode out of it. Take a step and two dozen birds rise and wheel away, a blur of wings and commotion that quickly settles two hundred yards off, safely out of reach. But wait a while. One of the meadowlarks will hop up on a post or low bush to sing. It will matter little if you can see the bird. all you need are ears. For me, it will be the same as on that first morning of birding, a magical song cascading into awareness from somewhere far away, yet incredibly close to the heart.