A Silent Spring for Oregon’s State Bird in the Willamette Valley

photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife

For millennia, the flute-like song of the Western Meadowlark signaled the beginning of spring in the Willamette Valley.

But, to quote Rachel Carson, spring in the Willamette Valley now comes unheralded, and the “early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”

This may seem an exaggeration for anyone lucky or unlucky enough to be woken by bird song at daybreak, a not uncommon occurrence for spring in the Valley. Nonetheless the Western Meadowlark’s unique warbling call has declined substantially. Studies vary, but there are indications that, since 1968, the Willamette Valley’s meadowlarks have been declining at 10% a year—the highest rate of decline among all grassland bird species in the Valley. One study reported a 59% decline in detections of meadowlarks between 1996 and 2008. Because of this, Western Meadowlarks have been identified as the “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).

There’s no need for a special CSI: Ornithology Department, or to call in Sherlock Holmes to sleuth out the Case of the Declining Meadowlark, the evidence is all around us: where once were oak woodlands and savannas, open bottomlands and upland prairies, there are now monocultures of grass, wheat, Christmas trees and hazelnuts. Where once the Willamette River meandered and flooded and was buffered by wetlands, the river is now modified and controlled, the wetlands drained and plowed, the floodplains covered by non-native invasive species like blackberry and reed canary grass. Whereas for thousands of years Native Americans set fire to the prairies to maintain the open spaces for game and other preferred edibles, a century of fire suppression has resulted in conifer and woody vegetation encroachment. The Willamette Valley now hosts 70 percent of Oregon’s population; more ominously for songbirds, the valley population is projected to nearly double by 2050.

photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife

Little wonder, then, that The Nature Conservancy lists the Valley’s historic ecosystems as among the most endangered ecosystems in North America – less than 8 percent of oak savanna and woodlands and less than 1 percent of historic wet prairies are still intact. The Western Meadowlark, which preferred to nest in the savannahs and prairies of old has become, in ODFW-speak:  “a priority species for conservation in every natural resource assessment for the Willamette Valley.”

As if the loss of any species, especially one with such a lovely song, wasn’t bad enough, the Western Meadowlark also happens to be the state bird of Oregon. If nothing else, losing such a symbol is an embarrassing and even unpatriotic event, much as the loss of the bald eagle would have been when it teetered on the brink of extirpation in the lower forty-eight states, before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring galvanized public opinion to ban DDT.

But the Bald Eagle recovered, and the case for the Willamette Valley Meadowlark is far from hopeless.

For one, Western Meadowlarks are still common in Eastern Oregon, and are in little danger nationwide—they are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as a species of “least concern.” If the last remnants of suitable habitat in the Valley are conserved, re-colonization by these healthy populations is not unlikely.

Secondly, an especially promising opportunity has recently presented itself in the form of the Willamette River Basin Memorandum of Agreement between the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and the ODFW. In order to fulfill “habitat mitigation” obligations, the BPA has agreed to dole out more than $117 million for fish and wildlife habitat conservation and restoration within the Willamette Valley.  

The Western Meadowlark will surely benefit from this agreement, especially as they are considered an “umbrella species.” Simply put, because meadowlarks have relatively large territories across a wide range of habitats, any act that will conserve their territory will also protect many other priority grassland bird species, as well as other endangered plant and animal species such as the Willamette daisy and Fender’s blue butterfly.

So there is hope, and this is a good thing. For as Kathleen Dean Moore, writer and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Oregon State University, has written, it would be tragic to have to tell our grandchildren about a song they will never know: “I would pray for only this: that our granddaughter would hear again the little lick of music, that grace note toward the end of a meadowlark’s song. Meadowlarks. There were meadowlarks. They sang like angels in the morning.”


by Nathaniel Brodie


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