For the first time in my life," Karlos Kaelke says quietly, "I dreamt about prairie chickens last night. I was watching them fly in, and as they came closer, I saw that they had lights under their wings, little landing lights. And in the dream I thought, 'Now how come, after my whole life of watching prairie chickens, I never noticed those birds have little white lights under their wings just like airplanes?'" He staggers with laughter.Karlos usually is a reserved person - a fourth generation Dade County farmer - but when he belly-laughs, there's a glimpse of something mischievous and possibly rowdy in his eyes. Laughter and talk of his dream finally sends him back-stepping, hands in his pockets, through the doors of his large, orderly barn. About 200 yards away, 15 real prairie chickens - 12 roosters and 3 hens - pay him no mind whatsoever.
For as long as Karlos and Elaine Kaelke can remember, prairie chickens have returned to the same booming ground on their farm every spring. "Booming" describes the low sounds males make while trying to attract females. "Oooop!, whudooo, whudooo, whudooo" is how it goes. The morning after Karlos' dream, the wind carries their cries away from our lookout near the barn.
We stand just inside the doorway of the barn and peer through binoculars and a large scope for the best view of the chickens. Karlos only dreamed of landing lights, but today, the birds could have used them. Dawn comes to the Kaelke farm, just two miles outside of Lockwood, and the daffodils are drooping under the weight of wet snow. April 6th, spring in Missouri, and the birds pay little attention to the snowfall either.
The prairie chickens are consumed by the choreography of their spring mating ritual. Males puff and wobble their orange air sacs, stamp and settle their feet and fight among themselves for territory. They are scattered loosely along the horizon, many roosters vying for the attention of three females. The hens appear sometimes attentive, sometimes wondrously bored by the whole thing.
Biologists monitor habitat, study and keep careful count of these endangered birds. Long after the science is done, however, we still are left captivated by the vision of these strange, squat birds and their colorful, astounding spring ritual. There is nothing less than mystery and inexplicable natural forces at work on a prairie chicken booming ground.
"It was about four and a half years ago and some people drove all the way here - to Dade County from St. Louis - just to see prairie chickens. You know, they were birders and wanted to add them to their life lists," explained Elaine Kaelke the night before we rose early to watch the birds. "And they stopped on our road and started asking me a few questions. And here Karlos and I were, having had these prairie chickens around our farm all these years, and it was kind of embarrassing how little we knew about them."
When the St. Louisans told Elaine they were going to drive an hour back to Nevada to stay in a hotel, her wheels began to turn. "I didn't see why we couldn't just have people stay here instead of driving all that way." The next spring, she and Karlos opened the Prairie Chicken Bed and Breakfast. Only open during the booming season, the Kealke's B & B has drawn avid bird watchers, biology classes from William Jewell College and many prairie chicken neophytes.
There are no theme rooms, excessive doilies or overdosed baskets of potpourri at the Prairie Chicken Bed and Breakfast. Guests stay in rooms recently vacated by the Kaelke children, who are away at school. One room is filled with things a college student has little use for in a dormitory: her Most Improved Basketball Player award, a high school prom picture and extra stuffed animals. The room is clean, and the bed cozy. Anything else might make it hard to muster much pre-dawn enthusiasm for prairie chickens. Sleep late at the Prairie Chicken Bed and Breakfast and you miss the whole show.
Usually, guests are surprised to learn fewer than 3,000 prairie chickens survive in Missouri. Since the Civil War, Missouri's 15 million acres of expansive prairie have dwindled to less than 50,000 acres of pocketed prairie concentrated mainly in the southwest part of the state. Sod plow blades and meandering cattle diminished the prairie, and so went the chickens.
Nests are vulnerable. They are flimsy and rest on weedy ground or in high, arching clumps of grass. A clutch of 10 to 12 eggs may fall victim to farm machinery. Raptors, such as owls and hawks, thrive in nearby tree lines and snatch chicks and adults alike. Once a booming ground or nearby nesting area is destroyed, the birds have a terrible time adapting to new territory. The chosen spot at the Kaelke farm is on a barely perceptible rise at the edge of a field that Karlos plants in soybeans.
Painted on the front of the Kaelke's barn is the name of their place: "Golden Rule Farm." The subtitle ought to read, "Do unto your prairie chickens as you would have them do unto you." Karlos delays plowing this field until the booming season is over. B & B guests keep a respectful distance. He built a hitching post so visitors have a place to prop their elbows while peering through binoculars. Neither the Kaelkes nor their guests do anything to disturb the secret, beautiful world of the booming ground.
In return, the chickens rarely fail to make an appearance. "I used to feel responsible for the weather, like I was supposed to make sure it was a nice day for people when they were here," laughs Elaine. "But then I realized people who are bird watchers and nature lovers are understanding. They know I can't control the weather."
In the past, humans have not followed the golden rule when it comes to prairie chickens. When the prairies were plentiful, so were the chickens. Thousands thrived in almost every county and they were hunted commercially through the 1800s. Even though the birds have been protected since 1907, biologist and artist Charles Schwartz cited poaching in the '40s as contributing to the birds' continuous decline.
Survival of prairie chickens in Missouri hinges, in part, on our ability to sustain the golden rule, because 97 percent of Missouri's remaining breeding flocks live on private land. When Elaine talks about the flock on her farm, she often calls them "our birds," then backtracks. She knows she can't rightfully lay claim to the flock. But that instinct and sense of responsibility the Kaelkes have for "their" booming ground must be shared by all Missourians if the marvelous prairie chicken is going to survive here.
Fifty-six years ago, naturalist Aldo Leopold warned a gathering in Boone County, "Until a majority of our farmers are as proud of having a flock of prairie chickens as of owning a new car, we shall not have the chickens." The Kaelke's have coupled their pride with the golden rule, and extend to all people, an invitation to do the same.
The Prairie Chicken Bed and Breakfast is open only during the birds' spring mating season. For more information, write to Elaine and Karlos Kaelke, Route 3, Box 49, Lockwood MO 65682.
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