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Spirit of the Prairie

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Published on: Mar. 2, 2008

Last revision: Dec. 7, 2010

The moon cast bluish light over the prairie as I sat in my photo blind, waiting for dawn.

I could tell I was not alone. Ghost-like shadows passed my blind, and I heard hollow “oo-loo-woo” sounds. They were the calls of prairie chickens, my quarry for the day, and they sounded lonely and sad. The calls penetrated my soul like a spirit whispering in my ears.

Not long after first light, a male prairie chicken ran in front of me and stopped. Stamping his feet as he turned a full circle, he stretched out his long neck feathers, fanned his tail and filled his bright orange neck sacs with air before releasing a deep, resonant call. He was so close I could see the eyebrows on his thumb-size head.

Prairie chickens (pinnated grouse) were once common throughout the North American prairie. In 1900, there were two species of prairie chicken in the U.S.: the greater and the lesser prairie chicken. The three sub-species of the greater prairie chicken were the Attwater’s prairie chicken, the greater prairie chicken and the heath hen.

Today, only two sub-species remain. The heath hen was declared extinct in 1932. The Attwater’s prairie chicken may soon become extinct as well; only a handful remain along the upper Texas coast.

Greater prairie chickens are the only species found in Missouri, and they aren’t faring well here. Hunting for these partridge-size birds ended in 1907, but their populations never recovered. Fewer than 500 greater prairie chickens now live in the state. They return each year to mate at known booming grounds located in the southwest and northern parts of the state.

Lowell Pugh, an emeritus member of the Missouri Prairie Foundation, has observed prairie chickens for more than 50 years near his hometown of Golden City. Pugh said he’s often crawled over wet and muddy grass to get a close look at his beloved prairie chickens, and he remembers seeing flocks of them flying over the prairie during winter.

Only three male prairie chickens now visit the booming grounds where he had once observed hundreds. Pugh believes it won’t be long before he witnesses the final chapter of their life.

“It is sad to see them disappear,” Pugh said, “and I will miss them.”

Photographing prairie chickens is my way of preserving their unique life history. My days usually begin around 4 a.m., starting with a half an hour of walking through fields with my heavy camera backpack.

I like to arrive well before good shooting light so that I have time to enjoy the calls of the meadowlarks, the booming of the prairie chickens and the first rustling breezes as morning arrives in the prairie.

Before entering the blind, I use my flashlight to ensure that nothing is hiding inside. Mice and other animals, even snakes, have used my blind as shelter. One morning, a prairie chicken stood on top of my blind while I was inside. I pressed my hand against the fabric and could feel his feet stamping as he surveyed the prairie for females.

The many hours I spent in a blind photographing prairie chickens have brought me many unforgettable moments, but the joy of experiencing them was tinged with sadness. I couldn’t help wondering how many more springs we will have to be able to see their booming dance and hear their sounds. Will there be a tomorrow for prairie chickens to dance again?

I hope so.

Prairie Chicken Recovery

Greater prairie chickens numbered in the hundreds of thousands on vast native grasslands that covered a third of Missouri prior to European settlement. Dramatic population declines over the past 100 years resulted from equally dramatic land use changes across those prairie landscapes. Today, fewer than 500 birds scattered in isolated flocks, remain.

Prairie chickens depend on open vistas and expansive grasslands to avoid predators and successfully reproduce. They rarely persist in landscapes smaller than four square miles, and much of the land within these areas must be actively managed to provide suitable nesting and brood-rearing habitat.

The Missouri Department of Conservation, in cooperation with its Missouri Grasslands Coalition partners, has initiated a recovery program aimed at improving prairie chicken habitat and eventually removing the species from the State Endangered Species list. On Conservation Department and partner-owned lands, nesting, brood-rearing and roosting cover are being improved with unique approaches, including patch-burn grazing.

However, long-term success depends on the voluntary actions of private landowners. Grasslands Coalition groups are working to identify and fund cost-share and incentive programs that help the birds while meeting the economic needs of farmers and other landowners.

Initial recovery efforts are focused in six grassland landscapes where prairie chicken recovery prospects are best (see map below). If these populations can be sustained, we will seek to expand suitable habitat to help reconnect the scattered, remnant populations. To learn more about prairie chicken recovery efforts, log onto www.MissouriConservation.org/landown/grass/coalition/. Consider joining one of the Missouri Grasslands Coalition groups, with opportunities for everyone from birdwatchers to hunters to farmers.

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