In the pre-dawn silence of a mild spring Missouri morning, a few brave members of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society gathered at the parking lot of Dunn Ranch Prairie, the area is one of the combined prairie restorations of lands efforts, in Iowa and Missouri, totaling more than 70,000 acres. The combined efforts are to restore a tall grass prairie landscape and provide critical corridors for wildlife, through the intensive restoration of prairie systems and natural communities. This is accomplished through direct work as well as a partnership with private landowners and other conservation organizations. Greater prairie chickens, upland sandpipers and a variety of sparrows are signature species on this native prairie. A herd of bison was reintroduced onto the landscape in the autumn of 2011 and their numbers are on a steady incline.
The Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) depends on large expanses of undeveloped grassland and these grouse species are classified as vulnerable. Both Greater prairie chicken and lesser prairie chicken populations have struggled in areas where only small, isolated remnants of grasslands remain. Today with the conservation efforts of Dunn Ranch Prairie the population while still vulnerable, in past years they have some breeding success.
Our guide on this trip Bill Blackledge; a photographer and naturalist from Kansas City, MO. After the introductions, we made our way to be the blind, which we needed to be in before daylight, as not to spook off the birds. Man, the weather and light on this trip was amazing. We climbed into the 8 person hide, got settled in and waited for the birds too began arriving at their lek.
This is the classic prairie-chicken image.
The Greater Prairie Chicken is not a true chicken at all. It is more closely related to certain grouse species. They are a brown to a shade of gray and grow to sizes much larger than farmed chickens. They are stocky and round, they have a small tail that stands upright, and their tails are usually of a dark blue color.
These chickens are scavengers, and they comb the grasslands with their long-range vision. Their primary food sources include seeds, small grains, such as wheat, soybeans, milo (sorghum), and corn. At dawn, each bird can travel several miles at a time in search of feeding grounds, only to return to their home roosts near sundown.
They roost on prairie fields that stretch across the American Midwest and the Northern and Central Plains in all directions, from Canada to Mexico. Also, in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Mexico. These Prairie plains are perfect for the Prairie chickens, as they provide perfect breeding grounds and their favored food supplies are typically in abundance. Prairie Chickens have recently been on the decline, as many of their homes have been encroached upon by farmland and suburbs.
Male Prairie Chickens are most famous for their unique, strutting, mating stances. Their dances will establish their social rank, which is judged by the level of aggression shown by a given male. The more aggressive the male is, the more dominant he becomes. They would approach each other and vocalize and then would often both would lay low in the grass, then from nowhere. One male would jump into the air; anything to give them a little bit of elevation. I’m not sure if they are looking for incoming hens or trying to show off.
When a female prairie chicken is fertile, the males will perform a strutting mating dance. Males will meet at a communal ground called a “lek” (definition: Leks are commonly formed before or during the breeding season.) Males ruffle their feathers, raise their ears and then inflate an orange sac located on the sides of their necks, and begin to emit a deep hooting moan. The most dominant bird usually has the best territory in the center of the lek and does most of the breeding. Any other male that gets near his turf is challenged. Usually, they just squawk at each other till one backs down but occasionally a fight breaks out and makes for some exciting photography. It’s much harder to photograph than you would think, you always seem to be focused on the wrong pair of birds. It seemed like most of the time, one of the males would charge the other, often jumping up in the air and coming down at the other with their feet extended. In some cases, one bird would come down on top of the other male and in a few cases, the birds actually rolled around in the grass with feathers flying. Other times you could see the males grabbing and pecking at each other as they collided. When these particular males weren’t fighting, they spent a lot of time posturing and trying to intimidate each other.
“The Duel.”- Greater Prairie Chicken.
This “dance” attracts females, and the best “performers” will be rewarded with the opportunity to mate. When a female chooses her male, they will mate on the lek. When finished, the female will return to her nesting spot. A female prairie chicken will build her nest in thick vegetation, which creates a lining and depression in the ground, and makes it more difficult for predators to see and snatch away her and her eggs. An average female can lay up to 12 eggs, and these eggs will hatch after approximately 25 days of incubation. The birds have a very high hatching rate, between 73% and 93%. Nonetheless, only between 22% and 65% of these hatchlings will survive to grow into mature adults.
It was fascinating to watch. It is amazing how well some birds can control their bodies and the birds were deceptively fast…these “fights” lasted only a couple of seconds for the most part. While it was interesting to watch and provided some great photo ops, these aggressive behaviors had to be stressful for the birds. If nothing else the males were expending a lot of calories.
We have “liftoff.”
Nature is nature, we may have arrived to late in the mating season to see the action on the lek, we did not see a single female, but seeing these Prairie Chickens in the remnants of their habit, really brings home how the loss of habitat, food, shelter, etc. can impact wild animals.
Watching this spring ritual really was an outstanding experience and I’m very grateful for the people at Dunn Prairie Ranch that make this happen. If you have a chance to visit a prairie chicken lek I would highly recommend that you do it. It is a very fascinating display of animal behavior. Prairie chicken numbers are on the decline for a number of reasons. I really hope we can stop this loss; it is a shame that we are losing or about to lose so many animals and all the fascinating aspects they add to the world. A thriving natural world can enrich our lives so much if we just let it.
Many thanks go out to the Nature Conservancy manager of Dunn Ranch Prairie, Randy Arndt, Grand River Grasslands Site Manager, Bill Blackledge, guide. Their combined efforts made this trip possible. Also thanks to my friends, Bill Duncan, David Seidensticker, Lisa Saffel, Dan Kirk and others, who joined on this trip.
Until the next adventure, or as this guy is gesturing “Until we meet again!”
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