When I was a kid, I saw a picture of a prairie chicken in a magazine, and I was enthralled. It looked otherworldly with it’s bright orange sacs.
I didn’t know anything about the prairie chickens then, and never dreamed I would someday witness them in person.
The Greater Prairie Chicken is not a chicken at all. They are a member of the grouse family. A few quick facts:
- They once ranged over most of the midwest United States from Texas to Minnesota, but are now confined to smaller areas of the upper midwest.
- In the 1930s, they were near extinction, but today their numbers are thought to be about a half million.
- They eat mostly seeds and fruit, but during the summer months they also eat insects and plants.
- During the winter, they “dive” into deep snow to keep warm.
- In early spring, males gather on “booming grounds” or “leks”, usually hills where they will display to attract females. Only 1 or 2 of the most dominant males will do 90% of the mating.
- After mating, the females leave the lek, and go about a mile away to make a nest and lay their eggs. The young are raised by the female alone.
- One of the problems facing the chickens is the non-native introduced Ring-Necked Pheasant which lay their eggs in prairie chicken nests. The eggs hatch sooner than the chickens’ own eggs, and the female chicken thinking her eggs have hatched leads the young pheasants away to raise them. Meanwhile her own eggs are left behind and the young within them die due to lack of incubation.
While all the behavior of the chickens on the lek is fun to watch, the most fascinating is the fighting between the males for dominance. Most of the time these fights are just staring matches, sizing each other up and facing each other down until one backs off and walks away.
But occasionally these staring matches escalate into real fights where they fly up a few feet off the ground striking at each other with their sharp claws and pulling each other’s feathers out with their beaks.
Last year, we watched one of these fights go on for about 15 minutes until both were exhausted and panting.
To the victor go the spoils, in this case, the females.
Isn’t she just the cutest thing? And look at him. He’s pulling out all the stops. “Hey baby, how about me? We could make some beautiful music together.”
By the way, what appear to be horns on the males heads are just long feather groups. They raise them when displaying, and the rest of the time they lie flat against their necks.
Here’s a video I put together showing the birds on the lek. All the sounds you hear are the chickens themselves. They have quite a variety of calls.
I hope the Prairie Chicken can hold it’s own so that future generations can witness this spectacle. The prairie would be a much quieter place without them.