Date: April 27, 2008; location: central Wisconsin; wake up time: 230 am. Yes, you have it correct – an unearthly hour. We had been preparing for this day nearly 8 months in advance thanks to the foresight of our dear friends Cathy & John Ley. They had booked two hides/ blinds to watch the Greater Prairie Chickens at the Buena Vista Grasslands Area in central Wisconsin. Having heard, read and seen so much about Prairie Chickens as students of wildlife in India, we could hardly wait! But before we proceed to describe our experience, some background lessons on the chickens’ biology are provided for the interested reader.
Neighbouring Prairie Chicken males face off displaying with their tail opened into a fan, and with the pinnae spread out for maximal effect.
The most unique part of lekking behaviour of Prairie Chicken that has made them the subject of much study, Native American folklore, and conservation interest is their drumming and booming displays. In the midst of fighting with neighbours, males extend their pinnae, fill out air sacs that have brightly coloured skins, rapidly “drum” the ground with their feet, and utter low-frequency booming calls. The boom has been onomatopoeically described as whooo-doo-doooh, or zoooo… wooo… youooo, or whur-ru-rrr – it is rather difficult to translate the sound into words!
Females use the drumming displays, the quality of the booms, the capability of males to defend their part of the lek, and goodness knows what else to decide which male to mate with. After the mating, however, the males job is over. The females are responsible for finding a safe nest site, incubating the eggs, and also raising the chicks. Not a bad deal for the males overall!
Now for the adventure! Cathy and John drove up to our student housing in St. Paul from Hudson, and dropped us off at the International Crane Foundation’s Baraboo site. There, we were picked up by Anne Burke, our colleague from the International Crane Foundation, and her partner Tim. They were accompanied by ICF’s brand new addition Jane Fanke – a veterinary student from Germany who was beginning her course work at the University of Wisconsin. Anne and Tim are aggressively social people! They had fixed up with their friends Anne and Larry Graham who own a farm in Stevens Point for all of us to stay for the night. The trick to ensure that you will see the Prairie Chicken do their thing is to get into hides/ blinds – that are located carefully by reserve staff – well before sunrise. If the chickens see you getting into the hide, you are unlikely to see them perform. So, getting to Stevens Point the night before was to ensure that we were able to get into the hides very early the next morning.
Ann and Larry were delightful hosts and avid birders. We watched Chipping Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows, House Sparrows, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Yellow-shafted Flickers, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, House Finches, American Goldfinches, and American Nuthatches gorge on the seeds in the feeders that the Grahams had set out. It was early spring, and free and plentiful seeds were obviously very welcome to the returning birds. An American Nuthatch picked up seeds and carefully cached them into the bark of a nearby tree. The woodpeckers were having nothing to do with storage – they perched upright with the seeds in their legs, hammered them open, and down the throat went the white seed! But we had a date very early in the morning, and we retired early into the very comfortable settings of the Grahams’ lovingly maintained home.
A Chipping Sparrow pauses between seeds on the seed feeder behind the Graham residence.
We met at a pre-determined site at 4am the next day where a cheerful volunteer drove up in the chilly darkness, and cheerily asked us to follow her. We were dropped off near the hides, and walked about half-a-mile in pitch darkness to the hides. Tim was as resourceful as ever, and using his handy flashlight, we reached the two hides, and split into two groups. Jane, Anne, Tim and S crammed into one, and the others fitted into the other. Now, all we had to do was wait, and be very very silent. Being silent is a skill that requires many long years of arduous practice. Going by the giggles and whispering from the hides, we clearly needed to work on our skills!
At about 530 am we heard flutters, cackles, and other calls. The chickens had arrived! As the morning lit up slowly, the males began calling – their loud cackles were interspersed by the booming. As we waited for the sun to rise to our right, we recorded the eerie beautiful calls. It was silent yet strong, clear yet thrumming, low yet distinct, and filled the air all around us with a nearly physical quality. The cackles that interrupted the booms were proof that there were birds, and not unearthly beings, on the grass outside. We were numb with cold, cramped from the two hours of sitting without space to stretch, but very excited to be in the hides experiencing our very first Prairie Chicken performance!
The first booming male became barely visible in the faint morning light, the air-sac resplendent amid the frost-laden grass and despite a chilling wind.As the morning lit up, we got our first dim but fantastic glimpses of the males lekking. Nearly a dozen males were running, drumming, booming, and doing spectacular leaps just in front of our hides. A yellow-red circle of colour suddenly stood out from the wet grass, and attached to it was a beautifully camouflaged bird with its tail spread into a fan, and its pinnae straight up like horns on an antelope. The boom reached us just an instant later.
As the sun continued to climb, we noted that it was not teeming with males as we first thought. There were nine males, but no females. Maybe the cold kept them away. (Smart move if you asked us – we were completely frozen!) But that did not dissuade the males from continuing to lek, and drumming and booming like there was no tomorrow. Patterns of behaviour became clearer as we continued watching. A male charged over to another that had crossed an invisible line – pinnae stretched out as if they were weapons. Both crouched, stood up slowly, walked parallel to each other, all the while being completely silent. The aggression and the tension was very obvious. As one crouched, the other looked away for an instant. There was a sudden blur of brown-and-black as the crouched male charged. The other male leaped up high to avoid the attacker, and fell back on the grass. The attacker then calmly walked away, keeping a keen eye out on the other males. The second male had clearly crossed back over the invisible line. There did not appear to be another interloper just then. He then fanned out his tail, puffed out his feathers with wings held out, filled his air sac making the yellow patch appear as if like magic, beat his feet rapidly on the grass, bowed, and boomed!
Two males face off - one booms with his pinnae extended, and the other crouches and watches.
Leks explode intermittently with Prairie Chickens leaping out of harm's way as aggressors attack.
If there ever could be an instant when one could be completely satisfied, that was it for us. The cold was forgotten, the whispers were long gone, and we watched mesmerized as an ancient ritual played itself out again and again on the short grass that became golden-green as it caught the early morning sun. The chickens also blazed with the magical light, the yellow-red throat skin flashing an instant before the booms. Another male leaped as it was attacked, and then another. Two others crouched in front of each other pinnae held straight out, and charged back and forth. And so it went on for hours.
Males boomed in the lek as their neighbours watch warily and the sun rose above the horizon. Talk about being fit - displays and calling continued for hours without a pause! Unfortunately, no females turned up that morning.
As we watched, there was a loud and familiar call just above us, and to our delight and astonishment, three Sandhill Cranes landed on the lek. Though standing tall over the chickens, they had very little effect on the male Prairie Chickens full with testosterone, and with a clear agenda to mate. One displayed and boomed to one of the Sandhills which walked up slowly and deliberately to the displaying chicken. The Sandhill Cranes paint themselves with mud just before the breeding season, and the ferric oxides in the mud react with the feathers making them rusty-coloured. The three cranes had different amounts of rust-coloured feathers and provided an unexpected and welcome spectacle. They stared at the hides, maybe saw us inside through the tiny windows, called to each other, and took off gracefully making swishing noises with their feathers over their loud bugling.
As the morning went on, the activity began to die down, no females turned up, it was time for us to leave. We packed up our things, found out that our feet no longer had any feeling, tottered about trying to get the blood and warmth back, and emerged from the hides feeling like explorers who had discovered something radically new. Small birds took hurriedly to the air as a Northern Harrier swooped low over the grass. One of the chickens took a quick look at the flying harrier, largely unperturbed. The prairie all around us had exploded with bird calls, and it was a glorious beginning to another spring day.
The lek we enjoyed is surrounded by farms, barns, and roads. The Prairie Chickens' existence is precarious and we owe much to the active and continuous conservation efforts of many people that ensures leks are occupied each year.We are beholden to Cathy and John for including us in their chicken outing, to Anne and Tim for their meticulous planning and for new friends, to Anne and Larry Graham for welcoming complete strangers - us - into their fabulous farm & home, to ICF for providing the photography equipment, to Sahastra for donating the sound-recording equipment, and to the conservationists for being such wonderful stewards of the prairies in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Video was taken using the Lumix-Panasonic DMC FZ-18; photographs were taken with the Canon 40d/ 100-400 mm EF IS lens combination.
Video: Prairie Chicken Display.
Schroeder MA & LA Robb. 1993. Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu.floyd.lib.umn.edu/bna/species/036;doi:10.2173/bna.36.