Of Meadowlarks and Mylar

“Change is the only constant,” or so the old saw goes, and it does seem particularly apt on the prairie. Don’t like the weather? Wait a minute, and it will change. On the other hand, some things are constant, “death and taxes” would be the saying capturing that thought. However, on prairie evenings, when the work is done, the shadows long, and the sun low with its light glinting off anything that shines, there are two things I can always find, the bright yellow breast of a meadowlark and the flash of a Mylar balloon caught in a cactus and twisting in the wind.

Sightings of the former bring joy. Heard more often than seen, the distinctive song of the western meadowlark is the anthem of our grassland, the song that immediately tells you where you are. Loud enough to be heard in a pickup truck driving with the windows up, I stop, put the windows down, and listen, looking for the bright yellow breast with the black V-neck, undoubtedly perched on a cholla or yucca somewhere about.

Sightings of the later are annoying. The Mylar or “metal film” balloon of birthday parties, graduations, get-well wishes, sporting events, weddings, and so forth is a scourge. Their bright flashes in the angled sunlight of evening also cause me to stop the truck and untangle them from the same cacti used as singing stations by the meadowlarks. I collect a balloon nearly every day.

The combination of these two constants, meadowlarks and Mylar, captures a bit of the yin and yang of working on SPLT’s preserves, the constant reminders of what we are fighting for and against.

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The Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta, is a year-round resident of Southeast Colorado. It survives the harsh seasonal changes of the High Plains by foraging for insects in late spring, summer, and fall and seeds in the winter and early spring. Most foraging is done walking on the ground, probing the soil with its bill to find seeds and flipping over manure piles looking for insects.

Strictly speaking, our meadowlark is not actually a lark but a member of the blackbird family, earning the “lark” name solely by virtue of its distinctive song. First “discovered” by European-American science when Lewis and Clark traveled west in 1805, Lewis quickly noted its distinctions, particularly in song, from the Eastern meadowlark with which he was familiar. John James Audubon gave the species its scientific name in 1844, Sturnella for starling-like and neglecta because he believed scientists had neglected it since Lewis’ journal entry. Though related, eastern and western meadowlarks rarely interbreed and are more often rivals where their ranges overlap, singing different songs and defending territories against each other. The western prefers grasslands while the eastern likes more wooded areas. Hence, the Great Plains are the domain of our western bird.

Like many a flashy man, a male meadowlark strives to have two mates at the same time, leaving the females to do most of the work. Courtship emphasizes the male’s most notable attribute, his brilliant yellow breast, which he puffs out to show off the black V, raising his beak upwards, spreading his tail and flicking his wings. Males defend their territories largely by singing, but when pressed they engage in pursuit flights, lasting up to three minutes, to chase interlopers away.

The females, meanwhile, are the nest builders. First, she uses her bill to make a cup-like depression in the soil and then she lines the bowl with soft grasses and shrubs. Often, the female will add a dome over the nest, weaving surrounding grasses to create a waterproof cover. It takes the female six to eight days to complete a nest. When completed the only sign of its existence is the “runway” trail leading to an entrance on the side of the dome.

The two-timing male does redeem himself a bit, contributing to feeding the young by bringing insects to the nest for the female to feed directly to the babies. Apparently, she doesn’t trust him with that final task. A nest will contain five or six white eggs spotted with brown, rust, or purple, particularly on the larger ends. Incubation takes 13-16 days and then the young are fed in the nest for another 10-12 days. Both parents will then tend the young for an additional two weeks when they leave the nest and begin to move about. A female may raise two broods of young during the season. Scientists, at least in the sources I consulted, didn’t say whether she uses the same nest twice — or the same mate.

Nesting meadowlarks are sensitive to disturbance and will abandon nests. Though still abundant, their population declined 37% between 1966 and 2019. They are currently declining about 1% a year, due primarily to habitat loss driven by agricultural conversion of native grasslands and suburban sprawl. Pesticides are also a threat.

Now let’s consider Mylar. Mylar balloons are made of polyester plastic coated with a thin film of metal. In addition to being bright and shiny, the metal layer keeps the balloons from exploding when they rise high into the air, allowing them to travel farther than a traditional latex balloon. The combination of plastic and metal makes Mylar extremely difficult, if not practically impossible, to recycle. Polyester plastic is not biodegradable but only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces in the environment, contributing to the microplastic pollution problem.

Microplastics are now found in our water, food, the air we breathe, and even inside our bodies. They have no known lifespan, meaning bits and pieces of the very first Mylar balloon are likely still with us somewhere in the environment. (In contrast, the oldest known meadowlark was six and half years old, observed in Colorado in 1965.) The metal coating causes additional problems. When Mylar balloons become entangled in powerlines, a rather common occurrence, the metal conducts electricity just long enough to short the line and cause a power outage.

Mylar balloons also directly harm wildlife, mistaken for prey by birds, sea turtles, sharks, and other species. Once ingested they do not easily pass through the animal, filling its digestive tract and often causing it to starve. The accompanying strings and ribbons are also an entanglement threat to wildlife. Even pets have died choking on a celebratory balloon.

We should also reflect on what is inside the balloon: helium, a finite dwindling resource. Helium is formed by the decay of radioactive rocks. There are only so many radioactive rocks slowly degrading in accessible parts of the Earth’s crust. Helium often accumulates in natural gas deposits and is collected with fossil fuel. It is a low density, inert gas that doesn’t react with other elements. It also has the lowest boiling point of any element, negative 296 degrees centigrade. However, it is the low density that makes helium balloons “lighter than air.”

Aside from filling party balloons, helium has many important uses. It is essential to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI machines), it is used in deep sea diving, the production of computer chips, and liquid crystal displays, and even cools the Large Hadron Collider. Currently, the world is suffering a helium shortage and prices have risen dramatically. The U.S. has a National Helium Reserve, originally maintained to allow the filling of airships and blimps, but we are now auctioning it off to stabilize markets. Ten percent of all helium is used to fill balloons. Many a doctor has noticed the absurdity of using helium in balloons, routinely sold in hospital gift shops, when patients must wait for MRI appointments due to helium shortages.

But least a reader think I’m lording it over those who enjoy balloons, I’m as guilty as the rest of us. When my eldest son was young, we once released a dozen balloons with a note attached, “call if found.” We got the call. In about three days, the balloons made it from Highlands Ranch, south of Denver to an elderly gentleman’s backyard shrub in Clinton, Oklahoma (566 miles by road). The record travel distance for a balloon I have found on SPLT’s preserves was from Tucson, Arizona (about 800 miles). It read “Feliz Cumpleaños Tia.”

Today, as I pull balloons out of shrubs in the middle of nowhere, I look with different eyes at what I once viewed as festive balloon releases. I see them as what they actually are — mass-littering events, wasting a valuable resource. They are nothing to celebrate.

Let’s stick with celebrating the meadowlarks. They are bright enough to light up prairie evenings and don’t have any known side effects — other than bringing a bit of joy.