In The Field

Preparing to meet the prairie chicken

The prairie was once one of the iconic ecosystems of North America. An undulating expanse of grasses, grazing bison and periodic cleansing fire stretching across hundreds of miles, it was called by “the inland sea” by James Fenimore Cooper. The prairie was also an obvious place to farm by removing a bouquet of native grasses and replacing them with rows of grasses dear to human stomachs—our domesticated grains. “Habitat loss” is too puny a term for what happened to the prairie. Only 4% of the original tallgrass prairie – the ecosystem most closely associated with the prairie chicken – remains.

Along to the brink with the prairie went its fauna, including the prairie chicken. There are four species of prairie chicken: the greater, the lesser, the Attwater, which lives in coastal Texas in tiny numbers, and the Heath Hen, which is extinct.

I am off to see the Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) ‘lek’. The lek is kind of like a nightclub, public promenade, or grocery store—a place where males strut their stuff for the benefit of the females, which generally give them a great number of unimpressed looks and pretend to ignore them until they finally give in and pick one. It is a great convenience to prairie chicken researchers and enthusiasts that they are a lekking species, for it means that they reliably show up at the same spot day after day to preform their competitive mating displays.

I am eager to see these birds in action, and not just because their display is said to be fantastic. It is something to see a species so rare and short of its former population and range. I’ll report back on what I see.

– posted on behalf of Emma Marris


Nature Conservancy Prairie Chicken information

interview with director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy in Missouri:

USGS information about the bird:

Audobon information

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