I'm talking about the Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido), a natural prairie inhabitant that is struggling to survive on Missouri's fading prairies. The continual loss of prairies have caused this bird's numbers to fall drastically over the past few decades. Currently, there are a handful of prairies in Missouri that still call the Greater Prairie Chicken an inhabitant, but their numbers are continuing to dwindle. Prairie loss, as devastating as it is, is not the only factor for our beloved prairie birds. They are also falling victims of predation and extreme weather.
Starting in 2007, I have been working for both the Missouri Conservation Department and The Nature Conservancy, as a private contractor guiding tourists to the Greater Prairie Chicken lek blind at The Nature Conservancy's Dunn Ranch facility, located in north-central Missouri. Due to all the above noted factors, the Dunn Ranch population of Greater Prairie Chickens has steadily declined ... so much that for the past 3 years, all blind tours have been cancelled. It was felt by all involved organizations that the tours should be ended, to prevent any undue stress on the birds, until (if?) the population of Prairie Chicken recoups to a point where we could resume the tours.
A few short years ago, the Missouri Conservation Department trapped the Dunn Ranch population and placed GPS collars and bands on the birds. This effort would hopefully give the biologists useful information about the birds' habits ... where they reside, what areas of the ranch they routinely visit, etc., information that could help the biologists assure the birds were adequately protected. Additional, and maybe even surprising information was learned.
Radio collars, after long periods of "no movement", were tracked and led to some important discoveries. Some collars were found in trees ... most likely left there by owl (or the occasional prairie falcon that wanders through the area) predation. And some were found underground, in burrows where they were believed to be taken by predators like foxes and badgers.
And for two years in a row, overwhelming spring/early summer rains wiped out the broods of newly-hatched chicks. All in all, these birds are facing constant threats just to survive. Let me share some of the many images I captured at Dunn Ranch during my 3 years of guiding there.
In mid-March, the male Greater Prairie Chickens begin to assemble on their "lek", an area used to dance around and attract hens for mating:
The next few images show some of the male Greater Prairie Chickens "booming" on the lek. Booming is the term used for the sounds the males emit when attacting hens. Air is first used to inflate the two air sacs, on either side of the head. Then, with tails erect, wings drooped, head feathers erect, and rapidly stomping of feet, air is deflated from the air sacs, creating a "booming" sound. Here are some males as they strut about the lek and "boom":
The MCD is currently working with Kansas Wildlife and Parks, where Missouri is allowed to capture up to 100 Greater Prairie Chickens from Kansas prairies per year (for a period of 5 years), and transport them to restored and maintained prairies in Missouri (Note: Greater Prairie Chickens are still abundant on some of Kansas prairies; even hunting of prairie chickens is still allowed there). So far, it seems to be working with at least limited success. But only education and continued programs will allow these birds to continue "booming" over Missouri prairie lands.
- Jim Braswell