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Save the Last Dance

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

a picture of the prairie chicken, and that's what drew him here."

Nearby towns of Bethany and Eagleville have benefited from the travelers, who spend money on food, gas and lodging. Prairie chicken key rings and t-shirts have yet to appear in souvenir stores, but that day can't be far off.

Prairie chicken viewing opportunities

Few places in the state offer good opportunities to view prairie chickens. Prairie State Park in Barton County often boasts healthy numbers of birds. Check on their availability for viewing by calling (417) 843-6711.

The Dunn Ranch viewing excursions are limited to 10 people each day from mid- March through April. Visitors must arrive well before dawn to be in the blind before the chickens arrive. Reservations are required. For more information, call (816) 271-3100.

To learn more about managing your land for prairie chickens, subscribe to a free newsletter with informative articles geared to landowners. To subscribe, call (417) 876-5266 or email sharron.gough@mdc.mo.gov.

A ritual dance

On the morning we visited the birds, a brisk north wind circulated through the blind. We were each seated in front of a window. Binoculars and a scope were provided. We spoke in whispers to avoid startling the wild dancers.

One by one the birds arrived, strutting and booming as close as 30 feet in front of us. Schwartz said the number of males on a booming ground can vary, but the average is about 12. Some booming grounds, he noted, had been used for 40 years before the birds' precipitous decline.

Males "boom" from their syrinx, or voice box. The call attracts females and intimidates other males. There is much sparring between males, which face off with their tails up and bright orange air sacs inflated. They peck and parry, sometimes springing straight in the air as they attempt to slash one another with their spurs. Schwartz said this sparring sometimes results in broken feathers or gashed air sacs, but the males we witnessed seemed more intent on performance than violence.

Generally, one dominant male will breed with the females, almost always on the same place on the booming ground. Other males vie for the hens' attention but are seldom successful. When a young upstart male tried crashing the hen party, the other males quickly put him to flight. Biologists speculate that some birds serve as sentries to alert the flock to danger.

The 18 birds before us performed their mating dance, oblivious to their audience. Without a helping hand, their performance may end.

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