Saturday, March 10, 2012

When Greater is Less

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 leks are always located on short-grass prairie land, and usually at the knoll of a hill. This formation allows the birds to spot predators as they approach the lek, and will allow the birds a better chance of escaping predation.

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":



As the males strut around the lek, there are numerous "discussions" as the males try to secure the "top spot" of the lek. Past studies indicate the lek's prime spot is typically near the middle of the lek. As the males strut around, they challenge each other for the top spot, affording them a better chance of mating with any hens that wander onto the lek. These challenges can be quite brutal at times (Note: on some of these birds you will see a wire (radio transmitter) and/or a bell-shaped "necklace" (part of the radio system used to track the birds' activities):


A hen flies onto the lek and is immediately greeted with the display of one avid male:
Another hen flies in and begins strolling across the lek, checking out the males. Meanwhile, the males are brought into a state of frenzy as they compete for the hen's attention:
And one lucky male entices the hen to copulate:
Seeing this, a competing male rushes in to "take care of the situation", knocking the male off the hen:

This new male then turns his attention to the hen:
Who abruptly denies him:
So, what is the prognosis for these endangered prairie birds? It's hard to say, but the Missouri Department of Conservation (MCD) has put into place some programs to assist this struggling species. They have instituted programs to teach and reward prairie landowners for maintaining prairie land. One of the unique requirements of the Greater Prairie Chicken's success is the need to have both tall-grass and short-grass prairies available. The short-grass prairie is used as leks for attracting/mating purposes. But the tall-grass prairie is important for nesting and raising of young, in tall grasses where they have a better chance against predators.

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

17 comments:

  1. Loss of habitat, worldwide, causes me great alarm. I look out over the growth here in TX and I get heartsick. The Prairie Chicken is a rather interesting looking bird.

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    1. I totally agree ... it's often sad to travel to a place you haven't been for a while. Always seems like new construction, and habitat destruction, is always nearby! Yes, this bird is quite an interesting bird, both in looks and in behavior. Thanks for leaving the comments!

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  2. A very interesting (and sobering) post. Really enjoyed the behavioral aspects of your photos.

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    1. Thanks, Ron. I always try to capture my subject's behaviors, as I believe it is important to see the behaviors in order to understand the subject better. And yes, it is sobering. My first trip to this lek was circa 2000. At that time, we easily saw 30-35 birds on the lek. Just this past year, I was told by the area personnel that they saw only 5-6 birds on the lek. Hopefully, we can get this turned around!

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  3. Thanks for the important message beautifully portrayed with your amazing photography!

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    1. Thanks, Robert, I appreciate the kind comment. It's sad not being able to go back and photograph this population of birds right now. But we're all pulling for their survival so we can once again visit and watch their fascinating courtship rituals!

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  4. Wonderful images Jim, great behavior & action!

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    1. Thank you, Mia. There's never a dull moment on the lek with the PC's! :o)

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  5. Tim Barksdale, a wonderful bird cinematographer and GPCH expert, is in the final stages of making a documentary about these magnificent birds. One hopes that his film will call attention their plight, for attention must be paid if the situation is to improve.

    I have been blessed to have witnessed these birds on the lek, courtesy of Tim, and the experience remains amongst the greatest sights (and sounds!) I have managed to reap from several decades of birding. It's deeply disturbing to think that our grandchildren may never witness it.

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  6. Nice post Jim. These pictures are stunning and I'm happy to hear that they are working on bringing the numbers back up again. Through conservation efforts, I hope this bird has a chance. Do you know? We build build build....prairie land isn't important...it's just open land to build, but I think with more efforts and education, people, like yourself, just may help protect it from future development. People look at our desert and say...it's open land. Excellent for development. But I think there is an awareness that is happening ...especially for our younger generations that we need to set aside places for protection. The CA Condors are making a comeback as are many other species....and maybe....just maybe, the measures being taken for these birds will be yet another success. Great post and I hope to see these birds one day in the wild. The picture series is wonderful.

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    1. And just to be clear:) Prairie land needs to be protected. I don't think the American public sees it that way though. I grew up on some prairie land and watched development destroy the natural vegetation which affected the monarch populations etc. Today, the monarchs are gone from that area of town that made poor decisions. However some effort has been made to restore prairie areas and that's really been quite something special to witness. I hope the same happens in your part of the world.

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  7. Superb write-up and fantastic set of images!! :)

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  8. Hate seeing statistics like these fading for these beautiful birds. Really enjoyed the beautiful images and the very good information shared as well~

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  9. Wonderful post Jim, great information and photos. Hopefully things get better for them.

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  10. No one captures wildlife behavior like you, Jim! Outstanding photographs! I was very saddened to read about the decline of these fascinating birds. I can only hope that the recent conservation efforts mentioned in this post will be successful.

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  11. Beautiful photos, Jim. Glad you've had the opportunity to document these birds and their behaviour with your camera, and to write about their precarious situation. The ever increasing loss of habitat for prairie wildlife is disheartening.

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