Outdoor Encounters: The Meadowlark

By Nathan Bolls on August 31, 2022
File photo. The late Margaret Wheat pictured with an sign that marked the entrance of Meadowlark’s campus from Kimball Avenue. Margaret joined the Meadowlark Hills board in 1976 and is credited for suggesting the community’s name.

One of the many discouraging facts of our time is that several authorities agree that of the number of birds present across our country in 1970, three-out-of-four of them no longer exist, an average of a seventy-five decline for all species—more for some species, less for others. And this includes two species once very common and familiar to us: the eastern and western meadowlarks. 

My dear late father-in-law was a MLH resident from fall 1985 until Christmas day 1986.  He loved to have me push him outside in his wheelchair to see and listen to meadowlarks, and bobwhite quail. Both were common—“all over the place.” Oh, how he enjoyed that unrehearsed choreography of Nature! Probably just like for you.

So, it was also with the original “Committee Concerned about Retirement Facilities for Residents of Manhattan,” formed in 1974. This group did the primary organizational work and lined up funding. And the Committee evolved into the Manhattan Retirement Foundation, whose formal Articles of Incorporation were written, amended, and accepted by the Kansas Secretary of State, and signed by all parties early in 1976. The next big item was selection of a building site. The second site inspected, a 32-acre site just north of Kimball Avenue and west of Tuttle Creek Boulevard, an area of tallgrass hills and of wooded slopes and ravines, “electrified” the committee with its beauty. A written history of MLH mentioned that during the tour “meadowlarks in abundance flew from the grasses. . ., and that it was a joyous occasion.” The Foundation ultimately purchased 23.18 acres of that tract for the future retirement community.

When the subject of naming the future community came up, one gentleman tentatively offered the suggestion of “Hobble Inn.” Committee members questioned the public relations value of that name. Another member of the committee, our own Margaret Wheat, author of the history I am quoting, remembered the meadowlarks and suggested “Meadowlark Hill.” This name appealed to committee members, and with the suggestion from another committee member that an “s” be added to Hill, a legend was born. 

Both western and eastern meadowlarks occur in this area, and their ranges overlap broadly across central Kansas, where they sometimes interbreed. They are so similar that the best way to tell them apart is their songs. Eastern—song 2-8 high pitched whistles, “sceoo seeyeer;” call a “dzeert.” Western—song a short phrase of lower-pitched flute-like notes; call is low “chup.”

Experts claim that habitat loss, climate change, and pesticides are among the main reasons for the decline in numbers of many birds, and of other animal types. But habitat loss can happen in many ways in addition to plowing land under or paving it over.  Let’s look at this at the species level. A piece of land or water can become too warm or too cold for a certain species—thus, it can be lost to them. Some particular preferred food source, micro-habitat type, or preferred nest sites become scarce or non-existent. Or maybe a particular species cannot stand up competitively to another newly invasive species—for any one of a number of reasons. The weather in that area can become too wet or dry for a species. A particular species is hunted to near extinction in a particular area by wild and/or human predators. A species’ preferred cover may become too thick or thin, or absent. And on-and-on!      

But any of the changes mentioned above may also make some area desirable for another species. What a merry-go-round is the matching by Nature of a particular species to a particular habitat. And all of our general tinkering with and misuse of the land and natural waters have resulted in many species moving into or out of some “ancestral” habitat—or moved into extinction! Talk about an activity where “We know not what we do.”

The jury is still out as to what specifically is behind the sharp decline in meadowlark numbers, but researchers are engaged in studies to answer that question. Whatever, it will be a sad moment when some new MLH resident looks around but still has to ask why her or his new home bears the name it does. And, if from out-of-state, this same new resident has to ask what prompted the state of Kansas to choose its particular state bird.