Nature Connection #17 – Prairie Chickens

I’m not an early riser. This voice inside me grumbles. It hardly seems worth it to get up at 4 in the morning, drive 90 miles and then sit in a bird blind at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve north of Pawhuska on a damp, cold April morning just to watch some bird dance around.

Forget that it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Forget that I will remember it- even dream about it – for the rest of my life. I will be joining the elite – and become one of a small percentage of people who have ever seen a Prairie Chicken dance.

The thing is, this dance done by this particular bird is a mating dance. The male birds only dance at dawn in the early spring, and it is part of their mating ritual. In Oklahoma, we have the Greater Prairie Chicken and the Lesser Prairie Chicken, and in Texas there is the Atwater’s Prairie Chicken. Concern over dwindling numbers of these birds is widespread among the scientific community. As rangelands and prairies give way to farms and developments, habitat for these species of birds decreases, year after year. They do not nest anywhere but in the edge habitats of prairies.

The passages below, describing the dance of the prairie chicken, are taken from “Booming on the Prairie,” from the book A Journey for All Seasons, by John Kinch. Copyright by The Nature Conservancy, 2000. Lyons Press: New York, New York.

“The deep, low-pitched sounds echo like a chorus of woodwinds across the prairie at dawn. As the sun climbs over the horizon, they [the sounds]  become faster, louder, and more urgent – until they can be heard miles away. . . . [This is] a rowdy pageant of booming, dancing, foot stomping, whooping and cackling – all performed by the males to impress the females.

“The pageant occurs on the same leks, or booming grounds, year after year. The dominant older birds get center stage, leaving the younger males to stake out their territory in outlying areas.

“The cocks warm up by stomping their feet and strutting across the lek to flaunt their brown-and-white plumage. Their neck feathers stand upright and their tail feathers are spread high and fan-like. They inflate and deflate their brilliantly gold-colored air sacs (tympana) on either side of their necks to make the booming sounds. Then the dance begins.

“The leaping, hopping motion of the dance is at once chaotic and rhythmic. The cocks rise and fall, whoop, cackle, and strut for hours, until the sun is high in the sky. They leap straight up in the air and stop impulsively to burst into booming songs. These movements are said to have inspired Native American traditional dances.

“The more dramatic the booming, the more the cock impresses the females, and one-upmanship among these demonstrative suitors is a loud affair. The females, on the other hand, make only quick, flirting appearances at the leks, their calm demeanors and dull brown mottled feathers – blending nearly seamlessly into the wintered grass – set them apart from the flamboyant cocks. With practiced indifference, they walk leisurely around the lek until they choose their mate. Once they have made their choice and mated, they will not return to the leks until the next year. They disappear to build their nests in the tall grass, where they watch over their eggs until they hatch in April or May.”

The sounds, the dance, the feather action, make for an amazing sight, one that ranks right up there at the top of the amazing things I have watched in nature. To see a clip of what I’m talking about, check this out on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch) and plug in “Meet the King……The Prairie King.” This video by jamessamualbrion gives a great snapshot of The Dance!



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