A boom on the prairie

27 May

It’s 3:30 in the morning.  I pull my car onto the gravel shoulder of the country road.  I step out into the pitch black quiet and follow a strange man into a field.

No, I’m not just out to worry my mother!  I’m out to see prairie chickens!

The field I’m venturing into is actually a prairie near the Buena Vista Wildlife Area in the heart of the sand counties of central Wisconsin.  The strange man I’m following is actually, John, a volunteer biologist with the Golden Sands Resource Conservation and Development Council (major advocates for prairie restoration and conservation).  This is the way the day dawns at the Central Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival!

Far from any city lights, the stars are amazing as we make our way through the field toward the blind in which our group will wait for the birds to wake up.  The pre-dawn hours are silent except for the crunching of dead grass under our feet.  And of course the voice of our guide, John; he warns of the dwindling numbers of Wisconsin’s Greater Prairie Chickens, only about 1,200 left.  He describes the acreage preserved in wildlife areas and the rotational grazing practices to protect bird habitat on private lands.  He tells us what to expect as the birds begin to display and cautions us to remain hidden in the blind until they’ve retreated back to cover.

our crew of UW students tries to keep warm while awaiting the sunrise display of the Greater Prairie Chicken

Finally a boxy silhouette emerges on the dark horizon – our viewing blind – something of a ¾ height plywood bunker with slatted windows.  There’s a bench inside and just enough room to sit comfortably (assuming you’re of average female height).  We settle in to wait for the sunrise.  It’s mid April – a very cold season to sit perfectly still.  We wiggle toes and huddle together on the bench.  We brought a thermos – do we dare warm up with nice hot coffee at the risk of disrupting the birds for a bathroom break?!  It’s freezing, it’s still pre-5a.m., damn right I dare!    mmmmm coffee!

As the sky turns from pitch black to hazy gray, the outline of tall grassy clumps pokes at the horizon, and the prairie starts to wake up.  Sparrows call out across the grassland, a hawk flies overhead, a few sandhill cranes land in the distance with a bugling salute to the sunrise.  Then the real show begins – it could just as well be alien space ships gliding down around our blind – an other-worldly resonance is punctuated by a deep throaty boom, then another, and another.  The chickens have arrived at the booming ground  – and they’re horney!

sunrise through the window slit of a prairie chicken viewing blind

That’s right prairie chicken booming isn’t just fun and games – it’s a mating game.  The male prairie chicken stakes out a territory on a nice high open spot on the booming ground.  He displays and fights off his foes to attract the attention of the hens hunkered down in the nearby grass.  (This sort of competitive display is called lekking.  Imagine some sort of hormone-charged high school dance where the girls line the walls and all the boys make fools of themselves for attention.  Don’t know how things worked at your high school, but on the prairie, the biggest show-off tends to get the most girls.)

a male prairie chicken displays

And, oh!, how they show off!  The male prairie chicken flips up his pinnae (feathers on the neck), sticking them straight up like horns and revealing the colorful air sacs flanking his throat.  The bright orange air sacs inflate and flutter as the male makes his booming calls.  All the while he dances and stomps the ground to add to his display.  When another male gets too close there’s a dramatic face off!  They leap up and lunge through the air at one another feet first to impale each other with their sharp ankle spurs.  As the females draw near to the most impressive males you can see all the display efforts are working.  (And it’s not all just for show, researchers have shown that males with bigger brighter air sacs tend to be healthier and have higher testosterone level.)

male prairie chickens fight over territory and mating opportunities

Our blind was at the center of a lot of prairie chicken action.  The ethereal booming filled the air on all sides.  We had front row seats to several fights.  We picked favorites and rooted for them ever time a female neared by.  So much excitement I forgot about my freezing toes or full bladder.

After a couple hours of daylight the birds had had enough.  The dance was done.  They retreated to the cover of taller grasses.  Safe from disturbing them, we retreated to warmth of the breakfast tent.  Oh yes, these bird nerds know how to do it up right – bring in the day with amazing wildlife displays, then top off the morning with a hearty breakfast of goodies coal-roasted in Dutch ovens.  We warmed our bellies with omelets, biscuits, porridge, cobbler, all spooned out of steaming iron pots.  The rest of the festival offers vendors, demonstrations, speakers – maybe after a short nap!

with our new friend Booming Bob


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