A spring dance: Prairie chickens perform annual mating ritual
GLYNDON, Minn. -- What prompts four men to wake up at 4 a.m., drive 30 miles and carry pounds of gear across a frozen prairie in the dark? Prairie chickens. Prairie chickens? Winter weather aside, we are in the middle of the greater prairie chick...
GLYNDON, Minn. -- What prompts four men to wake up at 4 a.m., drive 30 miles and carry pounds of gear across a frozen prairie in the dark?
Prairie chickens. Prairie chickens?
Winter weather aside, we are in the middle of the greater prairie chicken mating season. The male prairie chickens, triggered by more daylight in mid-March, compete with one another and perform for females for about two months or more each spring.
In a normal year, now would be the most active "booming" time, according to Brian Winter, program director at The Nature Conservancy at Bluestem Prairie, located near Buffalo River State Park in western Minnesota. Where there are typically a dozen or more females in normal years, there are just a few being spotted on the booming grounds due to the snow and winter conditions, he said.
"The males, being males, they're doing their thing," Winter said. "So what's happening is the males, in their exuberance, they're there, they're defending territories, they're ready and willing, but the hens are smart enough to realize that without a scoop shovel, they're not even going to be able to create a nest-bowl yet. (The females) might come in and taunt (the males) a little bit, but I doubt there's any breeding going on yet."
While the males are prompted to start their ritual by the length of daylight, the hens also take cues from the habitat, Winter said.
"I suspect that if we finally get nice weather, that ground is going to become really busy when it warms up a little and we melt most of this snow," he said.
Indicative of the spring we're having, Winter said he checked on another booming ground he spotted last year. The male chickens were doing their ritual and defending ground on what is a sheet of pond ice.
"They've defended territories and created territories on top of ice that's just going to melt," he said. "Which is really going to screw them up in a couple of weeks."
The morning begins at Bluestem Prairie with about a half-mile trek to the prairie chicken blinds. To not disturb the birds, you must be in the blind about an hour before they arrive at the lek, or booming grounds -- about 6 a.m.
The blinds at Bluestem Prairie are nearly on top of the lek, meaning the birds perform sometimes within several feet of the two blinds.
"If people follow our rules, which is get in there before light. And if you wait until the birds leave on their own, then they are so tolerant of people, if you're sitting quietly and watching out the windows in the blinds, that they go about their business as usual," Winter said. "We don't feel it's a detriment to the birds."
In fact, Winter said he's been counting the number of chickens at Bluestem Prairie since the booming grounds were discovered in 1989, and the Bluestem number has cycled consistent with Clay County and the state.
"I've convinced myself over the years that we're having no negative impact to those birds as a result of the blinds being on the booming ground," he said.
What the blinds afford the viewer is a close-up spectacle of the prairie chicken mating ritual.
The males show up to the lek at about 7 a.m. and start their show. The most dominant males will have the high ground while the younger males will be on the outside.
They squawk, coo, puff up air sacs on each side of their head and raise and lower two sets of dark feathers on top of their heads, all to intimidate each other, defend their ground and to impress the females.
Males will face off, one trying to take the ground of the other, and jump and flap at each other, trying to chase the other off. Many times, the two will simply just sit and look at each other until one backs down.
There were about 25 or more chickens performing on the Bluestem Prairie last Saturday morning, all chirping and fluttering around in a noisy crazy spectacle. The show goes on for about two hours, when on cue, all the birds fly off at once and the prairie falls eerily silent again until the next morning.