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Prairie Chickens Coming Home to Roost

Jul 24, 2008

It’s hard to imagine, but just 60 years ago, wild deer, turkey, eagles and geese were all rare in Missouri. But the Missouri Department of Conservation worked with landowners, communities and others to reintroduce them and get their numbers growing again. Now the hope is to match that kind of success with the greater prairie chicken, a bird I highlighted on an earlier blog.

What’s exciting is the work a conservation team is doing over the next two weeks. Max Alleger, who is heading our prairie chicken recovery team, is with them in Kansas this week for the second part of two-stage release of prairie chickens in Missouri. The first stage was capturing male and female chickens in Kansas, bringing the males back to Missouri, putting a radio transmitter on the females and leaving them in Kansas to lay eggs and raise the young chicks. Now the team is back in Kansas collecting the females and their chicks to bring them to join the male chickens in Missouri.

Instead of waiting to report what the later outcome of all this effort is, I thought you might want to share in the action as it unfolds. So here’s an update from Max:

“After two days of initial work we have located hens previously tagged and released in the area. One hen with three (one-fourth to one-third grown) chicks was flushed yesterday afternoon. After completing initial telemetry work, we are shifting gears a bit today. Brent, Aimee and Frank will use all three telemetry units to more precisely locate some of the birds, while Steve Clubine and I make rounds and attempt to contact landowners. We will also be working on our capture technique in the field over the next few evenings. All is going extremely well.”

Two key things you need to know about prairie chickens: they’re very social birds, and the same group tends to mate in the same area each year. That area is called the lek. By relocating a good number of the birds as a group to one new place that has just the right kind of habitat they need, biologists hope to make them feel right at home—or as the biologists would likely say, “to reestablish a viable population.”

Having the right kind of places to breed, to raise young and to spend the winter are critical for the prairie chickens’ survival. The fact that most native prairie is gone from Missouri today is why these birds are so rare here now. The good thing is that the Conservation Department is working with a whole group of landowners, other organizations and agencies known as the Grasslands Coalition to help create the kinds of habitats the prairie chickens need.

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