A bird flitted out of the long grass and landed at eye level in a dark-green bush. It glared right at me as I leaned out of the Landcruiser’s roof opening. Here was the meadowlark “look-a-like” that I’d ogled at repeatedly in the East African bird book. This individual had a black-V across its yellow throat, chest, and belly, just like the Eastern Meadowlarks that we had on our Pennsylvania farm. Its back was also striped tan-brown, perfect for blending into dry grass. But this African bird, a Yellow-throated Longclaw, was no relation to the North American bird of my youth.
It was only 8:30 AM on my first day in Kenya, and I yelled to our driver and guide, “Fantastic, what a great bird!” I first saw a photograph of this species decades ago when I was in graduate school. We were looking for examples of convergent evolution while also studying birds of the world. Longclaws are in the avian family Motacillidae, which includes the wagtails and pipits, too. Motacillids are primarily an Eastern Hemisphere group. Two pipit species do occur in North America, and two wagtails sneak across the Bering Straits into Western Alaska. The Old World, however, has lots, including eight longclaw species. The Eastern Meadowlark, though, is part of the Western Hemisphere family Icteridae, the blackbirds and orioles.
Longclaws and meadowlarks live in similar habitats; grasslands and wet savannas. They nest low among the grasses and forage for insects, spiders, and invertebrates. Natural selection has encouraged the development of their plumage pattern. Their brown-striped backs help them disappear in the waving stems. The yellow front with the black-V probably also blends well and may also be important for courtship. The sexes though are similarly patterned. Males of both species have beautiful songs that carry across the landscape, declaring their ownership of a small section.
The longclaw gets its name from the length of their toenails. The entire front digits on this bird seemed longer than what I remembered for a meadowlark. The hind claw is even lengthier still, and I wished this individual would turn around. Instead, it just twisted its head back and forth, making sure it kept one eye on me.
Perhaps, I have a stronger subconscious connection to meadowlarks than I’d admitted, and that drew me to want to find a longclaw on this trip. When I was growing up in the 60s, meadowlarks nested in the hayfields and pastures of our farm. Some were around all year, but a definite influx came in the spring. I never discovered a nest of one even though I walked through the long grass looking. I regularly found Red-winged Blackbird nests but not those of this secretive bird. Male meadowlarks would often sing from the tops of trees along the field’s edge, allowing me to watch them as I slowly circled the area on a tractor. We’d wait to begin the haying until after the blackbirds and meadowlarks had fledged their young.
My sisters still have the farm, and the surrounding farms still have hayfields and pastures. But the meadowlarks are pretty much gone. In my lifetime, their numbers in North America have declined by 89%. It happened slowly, and often people didn’t notice. Scientists think it is related to changing agricultural practices, the loss of family farms, and increased pesticide use. I find it frightening.
It is part of a larger problem. North America has lost one in four birds since 1970 and that amounts to almost 3 billion individuals. Conservationists and scientists are focused on solutions. Protecting habitat and reducing window strikes, cat kills, and pesticide use all will help. We also need to counter this administration’s efforts to roll back environmental protections like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, and others. Each time I visit my sisters, I walk their farm and the neighbors to see what birds I might find. The occasional meadowlark is a special joy.
According to Birdlife International, populations of Yellow-throated Longclaws seem stable. It occurs in many countries south of the Sahara. This place, Nairobi National Park, protects habitat for this species as well as many others.
The longclaw seemed a little slimmer than a meadowlark, maybe like a ballerina rather than a gymnast. The yellow eyebrow made its face stand out. The thin black line of feathers from its gape extended down to its black-throat patch and the light flicking of black lines on its crown and across the yellow gave it a distinguished look. It suggested to me an eminent diplomate coming to make her case in front of an international body. I shivered, maybe, it was telling me to increase my efforts to protect birds, don’t give up. The longclaw then turned, dropped down into the grasses, and disappeared.