The sun had set on a lovely, summer-like afternoon…and now it rose on the cold, gray, damp of early spring. Well, at least I assume it did. The only sign of our star’s presence was a gradual decrease in my reliance on headlights.
Thanks to the magic of GPS, I managed to find the school bus parked in a soggy gravel lot in the middle of farm country. I darted through the raindrops and claimed a seat behind a few other groggy people. More straggled on, and as the 6:00 a.m. meeting time arrived, volunteer coordinators Sharon Schwab & Dan O’Connell introduced themselves and took attendance. Seven of about 20 registered participants had decided not to brave the cold rain for a rare chance to see prairie chickens.
This grassland birding bus tour was part of the annual Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival. I’d been invited to give a talk at the library in Wisconsin Rapids the night before, and couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see a new bird. While the greater prairie chicken’s cousins, the sharp-tailed grouse, live a little closer to me up in Northern Wisconsin, I’ve always been too busy building exhibits in April to reserve a dauntingly early spot in a bird blind.
April is the best month to view both birds because that’s when they dance.
Prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse both start their breeding season with the avian version of a night club. Males get together on open, elevated, flat areas with short grass and good visibility called a lek. These criteria make it easy to spot danger. It also makes it easier for the males to be seen.
Once a group of prairie chicken males has gathered, they all dance like crazy to attract the girls. Not only does dancing together attract more females, it also lets the males compete for attention, and the females can choose the best mate. First, the guys extend orange eye combs, lower their head, and raise two tufts of neck feathers that stick up like bunny ears. Then they stamp their feet, click their tails, and shake their wings to the ground. The most vibrant move comes when they channel their inner frog by inflating bright orange air sacs in their neck…and boom.
We bumped down gravel roads for about 20 minutes before the bus rolled to a stop. The Paul J. Olson Wildlife Area was to our backs, but Sharon and Dan were using binoculars to scan the farm field across the road. “One just flew!” someone exclaimed. And we all looked harder.
Voices called out like popcorn with sightings, and eventually Dan said he could see seven males. I’d forgotten my binoculars, and was relying on the zoom lens of my camera to get a better look. It took some doing, but eventually those bright orange air sacs caught my eye, and I focused on a displaying male prairie chicken.
Then someone asked the bus driver to cut the engine.
As the rumble quieted and everyone finished their last sentence, a ghostly sound filtered through the gray mist. Oooo-oooo-oo…the sound of prairie chickens booming.
Eerie though it was, the sound also reminded me of whimsical amusements like blowing across the top of a pop bottle, or swinging a hollow tube through the air. Males make the sound by passing air through their syrinx. The orange air sacs—which are extensions of the esophagus—amplify the sound. Another name for prairie chickens is Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus, or “drummer of love." Another name for this place is a booming ground.
Whatever they’re called, there aren’t many left—of either the bird or the place. Prairie chickens used to roam the entire state, and now they exist only in a handful of counties in central Wisconsin. Market hunting in the early 1900s was hard on them, but habitat loss is the most critical factor in their demise—and their potential recovery.
We heard lots of red-winged blackbirds, but no more groups of prairie chickens on the remainder of the bus tour. Back at the site of the Prairie Chicken Festival, local famers, conservationists (often the same people), students, and families gathered to learn about efforts to restore habitat for these wild birds.
Greater prairie chickens require the largest grassland areas of any bird in Wisconsin. Within that, their habitat is diverse. In spring, open leks are key. During the summer, females need dense brush for nesting safely and open areas with lots of insects to forage with their chicks. They don’t move far for winter, but benefit from good cover and cropland for foraging. Like their cousins the ruffed grouse, they might also perch in aspen trees to nibble on buds.
For all the efforts being made to save the last several hundred prairie chickens in Wisconsin, their future here is uncertain. But the Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival shows that there are people who care.
Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods The Museum is closed for construction of our new exhibit: The Northwoods ROCKS! It will open on May 2, 2023. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.