Behold! The Prairie Chicken
Greater Prairie-Chicken. Photo by Doug Dance / www.ddancenaturephotography.com
At A Glance
- All types of prairie chickens are known for their "booming" mating dance.
- The Greater Prairie-Chicken has declined to near extinction over the past century.
- The prairie-chicken was a main food source for pioneers who settled the western United States.
- Of great significance to Native Americans, many tribes have prairie-chicken dances.
Best known for its mating “dance” where the male stomps his feet and lets out a “booming” sound from the orange sacs on the side of his neck, the prairie chicken has a distinguished place in American culture. Maybe you’ve seen a Native American tribe perform a prairie chicken dance (see our media gallery, below, to watch the dance) or maybe you remember Laura Ingalls Wilder writing about eating prairie chicken mush in her American classic, “Little House on the Prairie.” At that time, prairie chickens were so abundant in the Midwest they were a significant food source for the growing pioneering population.
But populations of both varieties of prairie chickens (the greater prairie-chicken and the lesser prairie-chicken) have declined to near extinction over the past century, primarily because of the conversion of their native prairie grassland habitat to forestland and farmland. Today, this great American bird is losing ground—literally.
Although the prairie chicken may not be famous across the United States, it is well known in the Midwest where it is honored and celebrated. There’s the world’s largest prairie chicken—a 13-foot tall statue—in the town of Rothsay, the self-proclaimed prairie chicken capital of Minnesota. There’s a prairie chicken capital of the world, too: Cassoday, Kansas. Prairie chicken festivals are held throughout the Midwest, perhaps the biggest is the annual Central Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival, which is an economic draw for the local community and gives visitors from all over the country a chance to witness the Greater Prairie-Chicken’s unusual courting ritual.
Peg Kohring, the Fund’s Midwest director, says watching the prairie chicken dance is on her top 10 list of life experiences: “You would not believe how exciting it is to sit in a prairie chicken blind at dawn with a warm cup of coffee waiting for the birds to boom. Then you hear stamping and raise the blind flap to see this magnificent male prairie chicken filling up the orange pouch on the side of his neck and making the booming sound. While the male is stamping his feet, moving in a circle and showing off, the females nonchalantly walk through the group of males who are doing their best to impress them!”
In Wisconsin, the plight of the prairie chicken has brought together landowners, public agencies and conservation groups in a widespread effort to protect grassland habitat. We helped with the preservation of prime tallgrass prairie habitat that lies adjacent to the Buena Vista Wildlife Area in the state’s last Greater Prairie-Chicken stronghold. The Fund purchased the land from Blue Top Farms Inc. and plans to transfer ownership to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to manage as habitat for a variety of grassland birds.
Its name suggests this variety of prairie chicken is inferior, but the lesser prairie-chicken is nearly identical to the greater-prairie chicken and even exhibits the same grand mating dance that draws birders from around the country. However, in addition to its size, the only thing ‘lesser’ about this bird compared to its greater counterpart is its population, which is far less abundant. In fact, the lesser prairie-chicken is a candidate for listing as ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered’ by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act.
Southeast New Mexico is one of this bird’s most important undisturbed habitats, and in 2008, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) about 35 miles east of Roswell to provide much-needed habitat for the lesser prairie-chicken. Through several land acquisitions and the purchase of federal and state grazing permits and leases, we’ve helped conserve most of the land within the nearly 58,000-acre ACEC for the species. These conserved lands provide natural corridors that link breeding grounds and are recognized as one of the greatest strongholds for the lesser prairie-chicken and some of the most accessible places in the state to view the prairie chicken in its native habitat. Learn more >>