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THE STARLING WE FORGOT:

The Western Meadowlark
and the North Dakota Tradition of Change

By: Billy Beaton

Feathers of Unequal Length

“There’s one!” A sudden flash of yellow streaked the space beyond our dashboard window. “That was close,” said Mike, instantly identifying the bird we’d set out to find. “I wouldn’t want you to see your first meadowlark smashed beneath the grill of my car. Want to grab a picture?”

I’d already rolled down the window as Mike followed the bird along the gravel road toward home. We’d been driving all afternoon on the edge of the tallgrass prairie, skirting a boundary that’s never stopped changing since our ancestors first proclaimed they drew it.

It’s been 211 years since Lewis and Clark laid Western eyes upon the natural resources of North Dakota’s Missouri River Valley. But it’s what Meriwether heard one summer morning that warranted a note in his journal.

“There is a kind of larke here that much resembles the bird called the Oldfield Lark, with a yellow breast and a black spot on the croop,” he wrote. “Tho’ this differs from ours in the form of the tail, which is pointed, being formed of feathers of unequal length.”

Two centuries ago, scientists named the Western Meadowlark Sturnella neglecta — the starling we forgot — and today it’s the state bird of North Dakota, Montana, Oregon, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Ten thousand years ago, a massive glacier scraped the continent clean of living beings. It melted, and the glacial Lake Agassiz formed, then receded. That’s when fields of prairie began to grow in its place.

New long-rooted plants built a unified ecology that sustained diverse lifeforms. They interacted with climate, animals, and indigenous peoples while Dakota’s Turtle Mountains took 10,000 trips around the sun. Nothing happened, except change — and only out of that came our heritage and what my dad respectfully calls “the best damn soil on the planet.”

Somewhere near Bismarck on the floodplain of the Missouri River, I forgot I was in North Dakota.

Mike spun us around the last bend in the trail and killed the engine. But as quick as the bird had come, it was gone. We listened to the breeze whisper secrets to the trees. Combines sat silently to the side. We waited for what felt like a very long time.

Then one small heartbeat disappeared into the bean field, with nothing but home on its mind.

I’d never known about the Western Meadowlark until Mike Olson told me they were leaving. He and Hope raised their family far enough away from the noise of Bismarck to sustain communication with the land. Out here, they’ve reflected on the gratitude they feel for that which came before them, reshaping their traditions to what they are today.

I spent a weekend in their daughter’s old bedroom as they prepared to move after retirement. We woke up at 4am to drive to a muddy slough in the boonies from which to watch the sun rise. It’s something their family has done for generations, and it reminds us how we ought to live for the good of the next.  

“That’s the whole Aldo Leopold philosophy,” Mike said. “We’ll never be true conservationists until we consider ourselves integrated with the natural environment.”

I wondered how he could leave such a beautiful home in a land so lucky to be this wild. But they’re headed to a lake cabin in Minnesota where wild lives come as close as they like. (Mike claims he “forgot” to tell Hope about the set of bear tracks he found by the mailbox till after they’d signed the deed.) They both feel they need wild spaces.

“The big question we ask ourselves is,” Mike explained, “Are we gonna be able to make the tough decisions to conserve some of these resources before they’re all gone?”

We sat on the deck, grilling ducks we harvested from a prairie pothole that morning. Friends came to share our meal and celebration. Lewis, the dog, chased wild bird calls in the garden. I’ve never enjoyed finer dining in all my life.

“It’s a rejuvenation,” said Mike’s friend Roger in his cowboy hat. “Life is rejuvenation.”

In spring when the wriggling things begin to sing again, “change” is a happy word.

“And the first sign of spring is audio,” Roger says over the windy, shifting plains. “That comes before the actual signs of growth.”

I hear the sounds of the prairie include meadowlarks. But they echo also our engines, sirens, and hockey stadiums.

“As things deteriorate, they don’t just fall off the end of the earth,” said Al Sapa as the sun spun behind the horizon. One by one, prairie stars started sharing their art with the falling night. “It’s a little bit at a time, so we get used to dealing with less.”

Sometimes living with less is the best way to appreciate privilege.

Bill Bicknell’s garden offers fewer kinds of vegetables than the local department store. But watch him negotiate the lifeforms in his backyard; you may wonder if you’re looking at a breathing self-portrait of Mother Earth.

“Harvesting corn is pretty much paradise,” says Bill’s wife Sue. She remembers how her first view of the Missouri River Valley from their backyard sold them on the house. “We feel like we’re the only people here.”

Like many North Dakotans, she enjoys hearing meadowlarks mark the start of spring. But Bill pays close attention in October — long after meadowlarks usually sing — when the occasional immature male may be heard practicing his developing hymns.

“Every Fall, I’m out in the prairie,” Bill told me. “I always mark on my calendar the last meadowlark of the season.” His yearly observations reflect the wealth of peer-reviewed science and landowner experience: the Western Meadowlark is moving away from its North Dakota home. Hearing its song when he least expects it is his link to our shared greater nature.

But other grassland birds are full of as much mystery. Bobolinks, Lark Buntings, Baird’s Sparrows, Sedge Wrens — all visit Bill in the backyard to communicate their curiosity.

“Working in the garden is a fulfilling, satisfying activity to begin with,” Bill said. “But then to have the symphony of spring join in — it hardly gets any better than that.”

Down the road in another wide lawn set deep away from town, Mike McEnroe wondered what may need to change to get more North Dakotans interested in conserving wild lives.

“We have meadowlarks out here in the spring. In fact, we had a meadowlark nest in the yard this year,” McEnroe told me. “But things like that are the canary in the coalmine. The meadowlark — that’s our prairie canary. And the prairie canary is disappearing from the landscape. That ought to tell us something.”
 

The Legendary Wildlifer

I once imagined the life of a wildlife biologist would be spent paddling canoes down nameless tributaries, collecting insects, and scribbling notes in muddy diaries. Maybe you’d bring a guide dog along. But the joy of the job would surely be the escape from society.

The first lesson I learned studying wildlife biology at the University of North Dakota is the most foundational truth of a sincerely deceiving line of work: wildlife management is people management. Those most enamored with the fate of wild lives find themselves most effective at protecting them when they spend their time inside, online, and far, far away from their own wild minds.

Mike walked me through the North Dakota Game & Fish Department offices, where I saw two meadowlarks — one stuffed in a glass display, the other on the cover of North Dakota Outdoors magazine. It was a special issue, Sandy Johnson explained. The agency just updated the state’s “species of conservation priority.”

And the Western Meadowlark made the list.

“It’s a bird that just about everybody has seen somewhere at some point in North Dakota,” Sandy said. “Twenty years from now, that might not be the case. A lot of people haven’t seen our state bird, because it’s just not there anymore.”

Like a true wildlifer, Sandy puts her passion to good use at work — and spends more time on the phone than outside.

“Landowners call me all the time, wondering what has happened to their meadowlarks,” she said. “Then they tell me they tore their pasture out and took all the fence posts away.”

For grassland species, the conversion of native prairie to cropland is like the mass destruction of city homes in a flash flood. If we till up all our meadows, where can we expect the meadowlark to sing?

Rick Nelson at Bismarck’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office noticed the Western Meadowlark the day he moved to North Dakota in 1979. He formed a tradition of listening for them when he realized he heard them less and less.

“To see that change in the prairie is disheartening, but it’s not too late,” he said. “The message we seem to lose in modern society is that we’re a part of that changing system.”

As much as 99 percent of North Dakota’s tallgrass prairie has been converted to cropland, and habitat protected by the Conservation Reserve Program has fallen 60 percent in a few years — and shows no sign of slowing. Meadowlarks are by no means the only grassland species struggling to find home on the disappearing prairie.

But “the power of the meadowlark,” Rick says, is that North Dakotans recognize it. “That’s why it’s the state bird, right? Everybody knows its song.”

Could the disappearance of our prairie ambassador be a good thing? What else could better bring North Dakotans’ attention to our rapidly disintegrating natural resources?

I left Bismarck with a mission from Mike: stop in Jamestown and visit the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. Pulling over the hill off Interstate 29, I realized the biologists working there come about as close as it gets to living like my legendary wildlifer.

For 50 years, their facility has nestled itself nicely into a 200-acre plot of real growing grass. Past the parking lot, wild lives still thrive — though meadowlarks, abundant in the area just a few years ago, are rarely heard anymore.

“Scientists have been watching grasslands disappear for decades, and have been unable to staunch that loss,” Jill Schaffer told me. She works closely with the energy industry to study how human activity impacts grassland species.

Wind turbines, she’s found, have little effect on the Western Meadowlark. But too many roads, croplands, and human settlements are guaranteed to drive many animals away. Without grass, there will be no grassland birds.

“There needs to be a personal connection — a visceral gut reaction — when an ecosystem that’s been in existence for millions of years gets plowed up in half an hour,” Schaffer said. “We aren’t getting to people’s hearts and asking, ‘Doesn’t this feel wrong to you?’”

Upstairs, Larry Igl laments our changing traditions. Five decades of Breeding Bird Surveys show a clear decline — as native land turns to extensive agriculture, meadowlarks turn to leave.

“Traditions do change through time,” Igl said. “So change isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself. But it’s important for people to hear these birds.”

Back on the road, all I heard was the purr of motors. I passed a billboard illuminated in the night. “North Dakota: Legendary!”

Suddenly, I remembered my freshman year Latin course. Legere has three meanings — to gather, to select, and to read.

To gather is to be receptive, of each other and of our land. To select is to make decisions based on reason. North Dakotans fit these definitions well. Maybe it’s because we’re not big talkers, but we are good listeners with level heads.

But to read is two things. To read with others is to communicate, to teach. To read alone is to listen, to learn. They seem opposite. They are the same.

Are North Dakotans being the legends we need? What do we say when we don’t hear the meadowlark sing?

 

Returning Home

The view out the car window along I-29 doesn’t seem to have changed much. It looks the same to me tonight as it did 22 years ago when we drove to Fargo to see my grandparents for my first Christmas dinner.

The sky is as expansive as it’s always been. Standing water reflects the same starlight from the same ditch along the road. Rows of corn mesmerize me as they did when I was three years old.

“I see a’somethin’!” my sister screams from the back seat. A red and white water tower crawls over the horizon. We’d look for it every time we drove to Amma’s house. It was our constant — our vision of what's to come. And we needed it now more than ever.

The Flood of 1997 destroyed our hometown. More than 50,000 people evacuated Grand Forks when rising water breached the sandbag walls. For no reason, our home was spared, but my mother drove us kids to Fargo while Dad housed our neighbors in the basement.

Single massive clouds stretch for miles above the car. They don’t appear to move, but I’m told they do. At least after I fall asleep and wake up in Amma’s driveway, they certainly do not still seem the same.

When I returned home from my Dakota voyage, I found myself back in my old routines — tapping my feet over cold concrete, driving my car to work, avoiding the outdoors without even realizing it. In the heart of the Red River Valley, it’s still normal to feel as far from the prairie as anybody.  

Then I heard about Bill Bicknell.

When we first pulled up in front of Bill’s house last fall, Mike told me it might be the only time Bill and I would meet. A battle with cancer kept him inside most days, but the morning we met was meant to be spent in rejuvenation.

The first and only time we spoke, I caught a whiff of his infectious hope.

Back home, Bill was on my mind. I’d imagine he was sharing a laugh with friends or cherishing the many paths he’d tread. I’d spent weeks editing video footage I’d gathered on my trip and saw Bill every day, smiling with me in the tireless autumn sun, harvesting his corn in pure paradise.

I was almost finished with the video. He’d see it in a few weeks at the state Wildlife Society conference. But almost the whole time I’d been editing, Bill had already departed. A constant I thought I needed in my mind to remain, changed. But the tradition he’d seeded stayed.

“Some of these changes are perfectly understandable,” he said with a thoughtful smile. “Chalk it up to progress, and one man’s progress can be quite different than another’s. As we move forward, a valued tradition for many North Dakotans — that while still there — is harder and harder to come by.”

The next night, I changed my ways to maintain my tradition.

Erin pulled up on her bicycle and shoved fruit and mittens into my backpack. We rode through the cold to where wild lives still know to go — along the banks of the Red River on the Grand Forks Greenway.

We settled into the twilight grass as our minds grew quiet to listen. What did we expect to hear? Who knows. But to be absent meant to miss it. Every song the meadowlark sings brings change. You just have to be looking at it to look at it differently.

Like a flash of yellow outside a car window, sounds pierced the darkening sky. Two birds on opposite sides of the river called to each other — one then the other, in persistent transmission.

They were no meadowlarks, but my inability to identify them only heightened my wonder. Why were these sounds of the prairie playing? What could our cold cousins above be saying?

Then, as invisible as these avian voices, another noise grew out of the distant clouds. The slow droning of an unseen airplane engine took hold of the river’s soft symphony. The birds kept calling, but the gnawing metal gained control. Voices singing, ground down by thoughtless sound.

As my senses drowned out, I heard more Dakota voices ringing in the quiet corners of my soul, where feelings have time to guide thoughts safely home.  

“We don’t have good discussion,” Sapa said. “But the more listening we do, the better off we’ll be.”

I no longer heard the waters of the mighty Red River.

“People need to realize this loss is related to the changes we’ve made on the landscape,” Igl said. “It’s already becoming noticeable.”

I no longer felt the wind that once made me shiver.

“Our challenge is to make this story relatable to people,” Nelson said. “That takes everybody — not just us egghead biologists.”

I no longer saw change nor tradition as barriers.

“Change can be good. Change can be bad. Change can be incremental. Change can be fast,” McEnroe said. “We have to keep trying to stem the tide and reverse it or fix it. Nobody else will.”

The moment passed, cross-legged in the tall grass. The self I used to call my own, at last, felt at home.

We are not the Oldfield Lark, lazing in the riches of leftover plenty.

We are not the starling time forgot, content to express no legacy.

We are the Western Meadowlark, the legend of spring and destiny.

We are formed of feathers of unequal length, in unified strength.

We sing to bring balance to the sounds of all things.

We change to maintain the traditions we’ve made.

When the airplane was gone, the river reappeared — persistent, immobile, emotional, sincere.

I sure see a’somthin’. But what do I hear?

THE END

Billy Beaton is the co-founder of www.SandbaggerNews.com, whose video “Meadowlark Whiplash: Why the State Bird of North Dakota is Leaving Home” helped empower him and his friends to stand up for our traditions, instead of sitting down. He thanks every sandbagger who volunteered their time and talent to contribute to this communication. Peace & Love.