Prairie Chickens might cackle a little like a farmyard chicken, but they are definitely not in the same class. These native prairie inhabitants put on quite a show in the spring, with 20 or more males joining up to display their prowess to the local females in a central “booming” ground, called a lek. Here’s a little of the show we saw early this morning while sitting in blinds provided by the Nature Conservancy at Bluestem Prairie near Moorhead, MN.
Bright yellow colored skin on the neck is inflated with air as the chicken utters its low frequency,two syllable “woo-hoo” which can be heard from quite a distance away. They lean forward, tilt the tail feathers upward and spread them, and then raise elongate black neck feathers like two horns behind their head. It’s quite an intricate display between the sound effects and the posturing with raised feathers. In between booms, males occasionally drum their feet by dancing a little in place or run toward another male to chase them off their booming area, as the video below shows.
Unfortunately, numbers of Greater Prairie Chickens have declined markedly due to loss of grassland habitat and hunting pressure in the early 1900s. Where once hundreds of thousands of birds roamed throughout the Great Plains, now managed grassland areas hold just a few hundred birds, and populations fluctuate as the land around them is converted from idle cropland (e.g., land in the Conservation Reserve Program) back into full-scale agricultural production. In addition, these small, isolated populations are prone to some inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity, which makes it even more difficult to them to meet the challenges of a changing environment and climate.
LATE ADDITION: If you wander over to Paul Sundberg’s blog for this week, you’ll see a similar display in another lekking species, the Sharp-tailed Grouse. Paul’s photos, taken in bright morning light (instead of the rainy overcast we had) really highlight the action and color of these otherwise very cryptically colored birds.