In The Field

Prairie chickens moaning at dawn

The Missouri Department of Conservation and the Nature Conservancy together put on trips to see a stable population of prairie chickens lek during the Spring on land owned by the Conservancy near Eagleville, Missouri. I met up with the volunteer guide, Bill, and about six other chicken fans at 5am, a full hour before dawn. We hiked up a hill a short distance to a small wooden blind, which looked like a children’s clubhouse with all the windows on one side.

From these windows we watched the sun rise over the rolling hills of the area, most of which are covered in crops like maize and soy. Meadowlarks sang out sweetly. Presently eight male prairie chickens, each about two pounds but looking larger thanks to their fluffy feathers, descended and began displaying. Each chicken would stretch his white-ringed neck out tall, then flip its tails up in a fan and raise two whiskery-looking feathers up along its head until they looked like horns. At the same time it inflated two tennis-ball-sized shiny orange sacs on each side of its necks and made a noise that Bill described as “a long low lonesome moan”.

The chickens paired into twos and preformed this amazing display, and occasionally went after one another by brief running charges and by hopping into the air with the aid of their wings and kicking one another. Their feet are not barbed like roosters, so these brawls are mostly for show.

Only on this day there was no audience for all these antics which went on for well over an hour. It is late in the season and the few hens have apparently all already mated and crept into the tall grass to make their nests on the ground. These males just can’t give up the dancing.

Because this population of birds is so small, conservationists worry about inbreeding, and are considering moving in some chickens from Kansas, where they are more numerous, to boost numbers diversify the gene pool. (“They are few enough,” says Bill, “that a severe hailstorm or a harsh winter where they couldn’t get anything to eat could wipe out the whole mess.”) They have put radio collars on many of them, and long antennas were visible on a few of the birds.

The sheer obliviousness of the birds was somehow moving to me. They are totally unaware that humans are planning their fate, tracking and numbering them and watching them from blinds. They are totally unaware that they just cling to survival as a species. They are even unaware, or at least undeterred, by the lack of hens. No, they just keep it up, the puffing and strutting and moaning and charging with their expressions fierce under orange eyebrows.

That’s it from me on this prairie chicken expedition. Perhaps, for the real action, I’ll try to catch them earlier next year.

– Posted on behalf of Emma Marris


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