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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 need open land from horizon to horizon, unbroken by trees where predators may lurk. They also need diverse grassland with vegetation of different heights and various amounts of residual material on the ground for nesting and travel lanes.

According to Larry Mechlin, a biologist with the Conservation Department who specializes in prairie chickens, the first half of the 20th century was relatively beneficial for the species. Soon after Schwartz did his study, however, populations in north Missouri plummeted dramatically.

"World War II ended, soldiers returned and put more land into production," Mechlin said. "Within five years, the north Missouri prairie chickens were gone."

Missouri, Iowa and Illinois had once been the heart of prairie chicken populations. Now sizable populations are found only in Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas. A subspecies found in Texas, the Attwater's prairie chicken, is likely the rarest bird in the world.

Prairie chickens can readily survive in an agricultural environment, Mechlin said. Amosaic of grazing land and grain crops actually benefits the birds. However, that kind of habitat is disappearing fast. For example, nearly 1 million acres of Missouri's landscape have been converted to forest in the past decade. Old, unmanaged fields grew up in cedars. Some lands were intentionally converted to trees.

Fescue also took a toll. Its dense undergrowth chokes travel lanes and discourages abundant and diverse insect life. Prairie chickens depend on insects for protein.

"The problem doesn't just affect prairie chickens," Mechlin said. "All grassland species are affected. Meadowlarks have suffered a 45 percent decline. Upland sandpipers are also at risk."

Improving the habitat

Sharron Gough has spent 15 years managing prairies to improve habitat for prairie chickens and other prairie dependent species for the Conservation Department. She works with the Grasslands Coalition, a consortium of public and private landowners, foundations and government agencies that work together to expand prairie habitat.

The coalition is experimenting with a variety of management techniques to encourage prairie chicken survival. Removing trees and creating predator exclusion fences have proven effective.

A promising new technique, called patch burning, encourages the maintenance of good prairie chicken habitat on private pastures. In patch burning, a third of a pasture is burned each year. Cattle, attracted to the fresh growth of grasses, concentrate in the newly burned sections. This allows the grass in the other sections to grow in tall clumps. Prairie chickens nest in the grass clumps. In fact, if grass clumps are not available, prairie chickens will not or cannot make do with other types of vegetation.

The new technique allows landowners to provide habitat for prairie chickens while continuing to graze their fields. There's no sacrifice in yield, either. Cattle grown in patch-burned pastures gain as much weight as those grown in fields that aren't burned.

The Conservation Department has acquired several prairies to provide needed habitat for declining species like meadowlarks and prairie chickens. These include Taberville, Bushwacker, Niawathe and Hi Lonesome conservation areas. Prairie chicken survival, however, primarily depends on private landowners.

Kind of a Treasure

Jay Albertson awoke many a morning in the 1920s to the booming of prairie chickens on his north Missouri farm. He said the birds were a common part of the landscape until the mid 1940s, when they declined considerably. By the 1950s, the prairie chickens were gone.

In 1993, however, the Conservation Department began a restocking program to bring prairie chickens back to north Missouri. They released 50 birds in the high, treeless landscape near Mystic. The next day, some prairie chickens showed up on the farms of Albertson and his neighbor, Bill Swisher.

About 20 birds remain on the Swisher farm, but Albertson's population has dwindled to just three males--no females. In 1999, Albertson had high quality video footage made of the booming prairie chickens. Now that his birds may be gone, he says the tape is "kind of a treasure."

"We have a lot to learn from private landowners," said Gough. "They're in a position to observe the birds day in and day out. This gives them a perspective we lack, so we listen carefully to what they're saying."

Communities cash in

A Conservation Department wildlife biologist helped organize the prairie chicken viewing opportunity at the Dunn Ranch. In 2002, the prairie chickens attracted 140 viewers and 146 viewers in 2003. A visitor survey revealed that more people came from 100 miles away to view the prairie chickens than from 20 miles away. In fact, people traveled from as far away as Arizona and New Mexico for the chance to see the mating dance of prairie chickens.

"We even had a gentleman from Russia," Grace said. "He was on the faculty at Maryville. He said when he was growing up, he had very few books, but one he was fondest of was on North American birds. It contained 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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