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Chosen by children in 1931, the state bird of Montana is the western meadowlark, or Sturnella neglecta. A medium-sized songbird, the meadowlark shares its family with orioles and blackbirds. This bird ranges over much of the western and Midwestern United States, as well as parts of Canada and Mexico.
The western meadowlark measures between 6.3 and 10.2 inches (16 to 26 cm) in length, and weighs approximately 3 to 4 ounces (89 to 115 g). With a sharp, pointed beak, the bird has a mottled brown or gray back and wings, and black and white stripes on its head. The most distinctive part of these birds, however, is the bold V-shaped mark on their breasts. The state bird of Montana emits whistles that alternate between a series of flute-like and gurgling notes.
Living on farmlands and grasslands, western meadowlarks are ground foragers. These birds eat mostly insects, but will also consume seeds. To help protect it from predators, the meadowlark usually eats underneath the cover of the ground foliage. Large birds, like hawks and crows, as well as raccoons, coyotes, and other small- to medium-sized mammals, prey on meadowlarks.
Male western meadowlarks usually have two mates, and therefore two separate broods, during a year. Although the males do not contribute to nest building or incubating the eggs, they do protect the nest from other birds or predators. Before finding a nesting area, the males fight over a specific bit of territory.
Female western meadowlarks build cup-like nests out of bark and dried grass. The nests are often elaborate, featuring full or partial roofs and covered entry tunnels. Females lay between three and six eggs, which are incubated for about 12 days. The young are born with scarce down, making the complex nests essential for their survival.
Though it is a non-game species, the state bird of Montana still enjoys the perk of being protected in that state. This means that it is illegal to harm the birds in any way. Although populations are slowly declining, western meadowlark numbers are still relatively stable and plentiful.
The western meadowlark looks remarkably similar to the darker eastern meadowlark. In fact, there was some discrepancy as to whether the two were actually the same species. Although they breed occasionally in areas where the species' ranges overlap, they produce little to no viable offspring. This basic infertility indicates that the state bird of Montana and the eastern meadowlark are indeed differing species.