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Bringing the Boom Back to Missouri

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Published on: Mar. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

example, they will allow males to wander freely in and out of the trap.

Once caught, a bird is put into a pillowcase so it cannot hurt itself. Half of the males and half of the females caught are equipped with radio transmitters around their necks. All males are fitted with a unique combination of color bands so each bird can be individually identified if later seen on a booming ground. The transmitters allow biologists to monitor survival and nesting efforts of birds and to locate newly established booming grounds.

When booming grounds are located, birds can be counted each spring to follow the growth of the population and the survival of leg-banded males. Mechlin says, "Survival is relatively low for males in the spring because they are most vulnerable when spending so much time displaying on the booming grounds. Females are most vulnerable while nesting, but all birds seem to survive at a higher rate when fall arrives."

Once trapped, the birds are then put into wooden release boxes. The release boxes have four separate compartments, each compartment holding one bird. The prairie chickens were transported in these boxes and released within 24 hours of capture.

George has attached a wooden pulley to the top of each release box and has threaded a string through the mechanism. He walks backwards with the strings about 30 feet and prepares to pull open the doors.

"The birds I've released have headed directly toward that booming ground we hear," he explains. As if out to prove him wrong, the birds fly in the exact opposite direction from the booming noises when he yanks the string and the doors pop up.

We decide to visit a neighboring booming ground to watch the annual spring-time show. Prairie chicken booming grounds generally are located on elevated grassland sites with short vegetation. In a fascinating display of instinct, some of the reintroduced birds in north-central Missouri have established their booming grounds in exactly the same locations as birds studied in the mid-1940s.

The prairie chicken breeding season begins in early spring and extends through June. Males make morning visits to the booming grounds, flying in before the sun begins to rise. They puff and prance, establishing dominance and trying to attract a female's attention. The hens fly in as if they are going to market and coolly survey the selection of males.

The noise level dramatically increases when a hen arrives. The booming noise rises, punctuated with whoops and cackles. Males puff out bright yellow-orange air sacs on the sides of their heads and spread out their tail feathers to do a quick shuffle dance across the ground. Two males pair off and flap into the air as if they are shadow boxing. A nearby hen seems not to notice them.

The Conservation Department has been studying prairie chickens since the early 1940s, when a young biologist, Charles Schwartz, began mapping the remains of the declining Missouri prairie. The comprehensive management plan the Conservation Department now has in place for prairie chickens should increase the number of birds by stemming the loss of grassland habitat and reintroducing birds to vacated habitat. The long-term goal is to have more prairie chickens and more diverse grassland landscapes to benefit all grassland wildlife.

Farmers are increasing bird habitat with careful management techniques, such as planting cropland with specially formulated grass seed mixtures, regulating grazing, occasionally burning grassland, leaving patches of crops unharvested and postponing mowing until after the nesting season.

Many Missourians once took the sights and sounds of this spectacular bird for granted. Often we do not appreciate our natural wonders until it is too late, but Missouri has been given a second chance at stewardship with the prairie chicken.

If the program succeeds, future generations of Missourians will not have to be told stories of prairie chickens. They will be able to wonder at the ancient booming grounds themselves.

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