Save the Last Dance

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

Night's curtain is rising. The stage before us is dark, but light begins to creep in. A black shape enters from the sky, and the ballet begins.

We are sitting in a blind near the same prairie chicken booming ground that a young biologist named Charles Schwartz wrote about in 1944.

Before long, 16 male birds are making low cooing sounds, called "booming," that carry across the valley. Schwartz said their booming can easily be heard a mile away. Soon the males are joined by two hens, and the booms are interspersed with clucks and cackles.

The sounds are music to the ears of Betty Grace, who has led a small group of visitors to view the prairie chickens' mating ritual. For six weeks since early March, she's made daily, pre-dawn forays to the booming grounds, and the birds have never failed to show. But some hens are already nesting, and the mating activity will soon end.

Only about 500 prairie chickens remain in Missouri, down from the 13,000 Schwartz estimated in 1944, and way down from the tens of thousands encountered during their peak in the 1860s, when they were found in every county that had prairie lands, even those in the Ozarks.

Prairie chickens proved irresistible to market hunters, who netted or shot them and packed them into barrels to sell in the cities. In 1907, with only 12,500 birds remaining in the state, fish and game officials stopped the hunting of prairie chickens.

The booming ground we're visiting is on Dunn Ranch, owned by The Nature Conservancy. It is 3,000 acres of what had once been prairie, and it is slowly being restored. The birds that use it are not descended from the birds viewed by Schwartz in the 1940s, however. Those birds disappeared. The birds we're watching are from two reintroduced populations--one from southern Iowa and one 30 miles south of Dunn Ranch. One of the hens was banded in Sullivan County, 56 miles away. The mechanism that draws modern prairie chickens to the exact same booming ground noted by Schwartz is unknown.

Looking for sky

Schwartz wrote, "The future of the prairie chicken in Missouri is in the hands of all the people of the state, but it depends most of all upon those who use the soil." He also noted, "Prairie chickens don't look for land, they look for sky." He meant that prairie chickens

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