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Spring means 'booming' season for prairie chickens, but their grassland home is disappearing

Two prairie chickens face off at sunrise.
Caitlin Troutman
/
IPR News
Two prairie chickens face off at sunrise at the Kellerton Wildlife Management Area.

Prairie chickens, a native species to parts of the Midwest and the Great Plains, were extirpated from the state through habitat destruction and hunting. The species was reintroduced in the 1980s with varying levels of success. There are now fewer than 100 wild prairie chickens living in the state.

In the hazy pink glow of the rising sun at Kellerton Wildlife Management Area in Ringgold County, a male greater prairie chicken lowers his head and raises his tail. Stomping his feet on the nearly frozen ground, the orange air sacs in his neck inflate and he lets out a low, haunting coo.

Prairie chickens gather on a lek at sunrise.
Caitlin Troutman
/
IPR News
Prairie chickens gather on a lek at sunrise.

The eerie, murmuring sound is known as "booming." It's part of a mating ritual male prairie chickens partake in during March and April to attract a female and establish dominance. The male birds gather on the lek — an area specifically chosen by the birds to perform for the females — to do their strange dance and calls. Some jump in the air and cackle to dispute territorial boundaries, others flash their yellow eyebrows. The decided dominant male at the time establishes himself at the center of the flock, at the highest point of the lek. Surrounding the area, hiding in the taller grass, are the female birds, who silently observe before wandering out into the lek to make her choice. Every spring for thousands of years, the birds have gathered at dawn to perform this complex mating dance.

Kellerton Wildlife Management Area is one of the few places where prairie chickens thrive in Iowa. The land has been specifically curated for them. Still the population remains fairly small — only about 50 birds. Iowa's population in general is dwindling as the large swaths of grassland they need to live on become harder to come by.

"We're just hopeful that this grassland is big enough, and we're smart enough, to keep them here in perpetuity," wildlife biologist Jim Pease said of Kellerton. "Of all the birds in the world, the grassland birds are hurting the most."

“If they don't survive, that's a sad statement about our society…they've been a part of this land for thousands and thousands of years. And if what we've done, in the way we've taken care of the land, doesn't allow them to coexist with us, that's on us.”
Jim Pease

When European settlers first arrived in Iowa and the Great Plains, the greater prairie chicken was everywhere. In fact, unlike almost every other wild creature, the prairie chicken population increased during the early years of the settlement movement. They thrived in the mix of native prairie and newly plowed farm fields. But after a few decades, they were overharvested by the millions for meat and nearly wiped out. In 1904 American zoologist William Temple Hornaday wrote, “Today the prairie chicken is to be numbered with the buffalo and the passenger pigeon. It is useless to describe this bird. The chances are that no reader of this book will ever see one outside of a museum.”

Fortunately, Hornaday was wrong, but prairie chickens have disappeared from most of their original range, and today birdwatchers travel great distances to see their remarkable mating display. Despite conservation efforts, there are fewer than 100 prairie chickens living in the entire state Iowa.

Iowa has agreements with other states to trade certain species in order to repopulate, and for some species like river otters, those efforts have been successful. Because of the dramatic loss of habitat that shows no signs of returning, paired with extreme weather the past few years, prairie chickens may never return to their former numbers.

"As the weather goes and the habitat goes, so do the birds."
DNR Wildlife Biologist Chad Paup

A prairie chicken struts on a lek.
Caitlin Troutman
/
IPR News
A prairie chicken struts on a lek.

Reintroductions occurred again each year from 2011 to 2015, but tough winters meant the populations couldn't take hold.

"As the weather goes and the habitat goes, so do the birds," said DNR wildlife biologist Chad Paup. "It's not real bright."

For now, southern Iowa seems to be the best place for the birds to be to regrow their numbers. Public-private partnerships seem to be the only way forward, to save the population, but it would likely take a number of highly motivated, strongly incentivized people to make that happen. Right now, all they can do is protect the flocks there now and prolong the species that have been part of the grasslands for centuries.

"If [prairie chickens] don't survive, that's a sad statement about our society. Part of that, to me, kind of tears at me, because they've been a part of this land for thousands and thousands of years and if what we've done and the way we've taken care of the land doesn't allow them to coexist with us, that's on us."

Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio
Josie Fischels is IPR's Arts & Culture Reporter, with expertise in performance art, visual art and Iowa Life. She's covered local and statewide arts, news and lifestyle features for The Daily Iowan, The Denver Post, NPR and currently for IPR. Fischels is a University of Iowa graduate.
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa