Sturnella loycalong-tailed meadowlark

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Geographic Range

Long-tailed meadowlarks (Sturnella loyca) are mostly found in the grasslands of southern South America, including Argentina, Chile, the Falkland Islands, the South Georgia Islands, and the South Sandwich Islands. Long-tailed meadowlarks are obligate grassland species and prefer grass meadows. In the Cordoba province of Argentina, S. loyca is a resident species of the montane region. (Jaramillo and Burke, 1999; Vickery, et al., 2002)

Habitat

Long-tailed meadowlarks are found in well-drained areas such as Andean grasslands and Patagonian steppe. Unlike Pampas meadowlarks (Sturnella defillipii), S. loyca males prefer territories with perches, which are required for their mating behavior. For this reason, S. loyca is found in grasslands that are interspersed with small shrubs or trees. In the Falkland Islands, the subspecies Sturnella loyca falklandica uses a variety of habitats including white grass camp, short turf, open heathland, and tussac grass paddocks, as well as pastures and cultivated meadows. (Jaramillo and Burke, 1999)

Physical Description

One of the main differences between S. loyca and the North American meadowlarks (Sturnella magna and Sturnella neglecta) is color. Where North American meadowlarks range from yellow to orange, long-tailed meadowlarks display bright red coloring. Long-tailed meadowlarks are much larger than both eastern and western meadowlarks. They have longer tails compared to their body length and bills that are approximately 1.25 times the length of the head. Unlike the practically indistinguishable sexes in North American meadowlarks, long-tailed meadowlarks are sexually dimorphic. Males have longer tails and bills than females. In males, the breast and throat are bright, vivid red. The crown is blackish brown and the flanks, thighs, and belly are black with pale fringing. Like most meadowlarks, both males and females have a white stripe above the eye. However, in males the area immediately above the eye is vivid red comparable to the coloring on the breast. In males, but not females, the white stripe extends just beyond the eye. Females are paler than males as black feathers are obscured by wide olive fringing. Superficially, females and juveniles are similar in appearance. Breast color of females and juveniles is reduced in saturation and appears to be more pink than red. Juveniles have crisp fringing that results in an almost scaly appearance. Overall, juveniles have stronger striping on the back and breast than both adult males and females. (Gochfield, 1978; Jaramillo and Burke, 1999)

Long-tailed meadowlarks share an overlapping range with Pampas meadowlarks (Sturnella defillippi) and white-browed blackbirds (Sturnella superciliaris). Long-tailed meadowlarks can be distinguished from Pampas meadowlarks by body size and tail length; Long-tailed meadowlarks are larger and have a longer tail and they have a broken black coloration compared to the solid black of Pampas meadowlarks. In addition to being the largest of the three species, long-tailed meadowlarks are also more vividly colored than both sympatric species. Both Pampas meadowlarks and white-browed blackbirds have bright red breasts, but no salmon-red underparts like long-tailed meadowlarks. In flight, the species can be distinguished because Pampas meadowlarks and white-browed blackbirds have black wing linings as opposed to the white wing linings of long-tailed meadowlarks. (Jaramillo and Burke, 1999)

A recent study measured and evaluated reflectance spectrophotometry data for the red-breasted meadowlark group. Colors were evaluated in the manner in which birds would see them. Although these three species have very similar coloring, Benites et al. (2007) determined that differences in coloration in both the visible and UV spectrum are detectable by birds. (Benites, et al., 2007)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    75 to 92 g
    2.64 to 3.24 oz
  • Range length
    25 to 28 cm
    9.84 to 11.02 in

Reproduction

Unlike North American meadowlarks (Sturnella magna and Sturnella neglecta), long-tailed meadowlarks have a monogamous mating system. (Jaramillo and Burke, 1999)

As in North America meadowlarks, the nest is typically located on the ground and domed with an entrance tunnel of up to 1 meter in length! Though some species of birds build a similar type of domed nest on the ground, it is likely that no other species constructs as elaborate an entrance tunnel as long-tailed meadowlarks. In the Falkland Islands, nests may be raised from the ground by up to 1 meter and located on a flat pedestal of tussac grass. Nest building and incubation are performed solely by the female; however, the male will assist in feeding the young. (Jaramillo and Burke, 1999)

  • Breeding interval
    Long-tailed meadowlarks breed once yearly, but can produce two broods in a good season.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs between September and May, varying regionally.
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 5

Most of the parental care is performed by the female in the time leading up to hatching. After hatching, males have been known to provide food for hatchlings. (Jaramillo and Burke, 1999)

Lifespan/Longevity

Currently no information relating to longevity has been reported in literature for S. loyca. However, North American Sturnella species have been reported living to over 12 years old.

Behavior

Like both North American meadowlarks, long-tailed meadowlarks require a perch – small bushes, posts, or fences – for calling and territorial displays. Unlike the two sympatric species in the area, long-tailed meadowlarks do not sing from the ground, but rather from a perch or shrub. In the Falkland Islands, the subspecies S. loyca falkandica can be observed singing from the ground. Long-tailed meadowlarks can be found in large groups during winter. Although the range of long-tailed meadowlarks is larger and overlaps both the ranges of Pampas meadowlarks and white-browed blackbirds, they are not frequently observed to take part in interspecific displays of aggression. Unlike North American blackbirds, where species confusion can easily take place, long-tailed meadowlarks are more frequently observed to take part in intraspecific displays of territoriality perhaps because of clearly defined differences in coloration. The most frequently observed intraspecific displays of aggression included physical attacks; face-offs and jump-flights, which stop short of direct physical aggression, but involve a hostile and intense encounter, primary song-duetting, and flight-song duetting. These categories of territorial displays are similar to those found in North American meadowlarks. (Gochfield, 1978; Jaramillo and Burke, 1999)

Home Range

Home range sizes in long-tailed meadowlarks are not reported in the literature.

Communication and Perception

Males have a louder and more distinctive songs than females. Females have been observed calling in response to males and females utter short whistles during nesting. Long-tailed meadowlarks have at least two distinct songs, both of which are loud and wheezy. Both songs begin with a series of several short whistles, but the introductory notes differ for long and short songs. In the longer song, which lasts at least (and sometimes over) two seconds, the series of short whistles is followed by two longer, modulated whistles that vary in intonation – either one rising and the second falling, or vice versa – followed by a terminal whine. The introductory whistles are at a high frequency that carries well over open grasslands. The subspecies S. loyca catamarcana utters a song during flight, a trait common to birds that inhabit grasslands. Such displays are unusual among birds because song during flight is extremely energetically expensive. Of the South American meadowlarks, those common to the Falkland Islands occasionally utter a song in flight while gliding over their territory. This flight song is more complex than in other S. loyca subspecies. (Jaramillo and Burke, 1999)

  • Other Communication Modes
  • duets

Food Habits

Long-tailed meadowlarks forage for small insects and seeds on the ground. (Jaramillo and Burke, 1999)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts

Predation

In addition to predation by eagles and feral cats, long-tailed meadowlarks account for approximately 20% of the diet of rufous-tailed hawks (Buteo ventralis) and approximately 16% of the diet of Aplomado falcons (Falco femoralis). Although not a direct predator, the presence of feral horses (Equus caballus) in grasslands was accompanied by an increase in predation by up to 70%. Increased grazing in the preferential habitat can increase the visibility of S. loyca nesting sites to opportunistic predators. (Cozzani and Zalba, 2004; Figueroa Rojas and Stappung, 2004)

Ecosystem Roles

Nests of S. loyca are commonly targeted for brood parasitism by shiny cowbirds (Molothrus bonariensis), but shiny cowbird young rarely successfully fledge in long-tailed meadowlark nests. In an agricultural setting, it is possible that this species (as insectivores) has a positive impact on farming, though little information is reported in the literature. Grassland disruption or overgrazing, such as by feral horses, increases risk of predation in long-tailed meadowlarks. (Jaramillo and Burke, 1999)

Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Very little is documented. Long-tailed meadowlarks likely play a role as insect predators in their savannah ecosystems.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of S. loyca on humans.

Conservation Status

Long-tailed meadowlarks have a wide geographic range and are considered "least concern" by the IUCN RedList.

Contributors

Krystyna Horn (author), University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Kevin Omland (editor, instructor), University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Glossary

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
duets

to jointly display, usually with sounds in a highly coordinated fashion, at the same time as one other individual of the same species, often a mate

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

omnivore

an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Benites, P., L. Pablo, A. Dario, S. Lougheed, M. Eaton. 2007. Color differences among closely related species of Red-Breasted Meadowlarks (Sturnella). The Condor, 109: 605-616.

Cozzani, N., S. Zalba. 2004. The impact of feral horses on grassland bird communities in Argentina. Animal Conservation, 7:1: 35-44.

D'Atri, P. 2009. "ENVIRONMENT: South America's Forgotten Grasslands" (On-line). Accessed December 27, 2009 at http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?Idnews=35740.

Figueroa Rojas, A., E. Stappung. 2004. Summer diet comparison between the American Kestrel and Aplomado Falcon in an agricultural area of Araucania, southern Chile. Hornero (B. Aires), 19:2: 53-60.

Figueroa Rojas, R., E. Stappung. 2005. Seasonal Diet of the Aplomado Falcon in an agricultural area of Araucun, Southern Chile. Raptor Research, 39: 55-60.

Gochfield, M. 1978. Interspecific Territoriality in Red-Breasted Meadowlarks and a Method for Estimating the Mutuality of Their Participation. Bahvioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 5: 159-170.

Jaramillo, A., P. Burke. 1999. New World Blackbirds: The Icterids. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Vickery, P., H. Casanas, A. Di Giacomo. 2002. Effects of altitude on the distribution of Nearctic and resident grassland species in Cordoba province Argentina. Journal of Field Ornithology, 74:2: 172-178.

de Magalhaes, J., J. Costa. 2010. "AnAge - Sturnella" (On-line). AnAge: The Animal Ageing and Longevity Database. Accessed January 27, 2010 at http://genomics.senescence.info/species/index.html.