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.
The Greater Prairie-Chicken once was found in abundance across much of the Midwest. But populations have declined to near extinction over the past century. Today, this great American bird is losing ground—literally.
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.
Festivals And Rituals
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!”
If the prairie chicken is so beloved, why is there the need for conservation?
Despite having statues and towns honoring them, populations of Greater Prairie-Chickens have declined to near extinction over the past century—primarily because of the conversion of grassland to forestland and farmland. In Wisconsin, they once inhabited every county but are now found in only six counties in the central part of the state. In other states, the population has declined 90 percent or more. Continued loss and fragmentation of habitat threatens the prairie chicken’s survival. The absence of natural corridors linking the current fragmented habitat puts breeding—and genetic variance—in jeopardy.
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.