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Early in April, eerie, hollow booming reverberates over a field near Kellerton, the last remnant of greater prairie chicken habitat in Iowa. Go to the lek, or breeding ground, to hear the males begin their courtship rituals. Watch as they shrink and expand leathery orange sacs on each side of their necks to make the haunting sounds that hens love.
A good chance to take in this unusual Iowa experience is at the annual Prairie Chicken Festival April 8, 2017 (see below for details). Brush up on these cool prairie chicken facts before you go:
Herald of spring. Once Iowa’s most abundant game bird, prairie chickens ushered in spring for thousands of years. Valued for food, quills and bones, Native Americans developed elaborate dances imitating the male chickens’ breeding rituals.
Males are real show-offs. They sport ear tufts (pinnae feathers that rise from their eyebrows and resemble horns), bright orange eyebrows and a large, inflatable orange pouch on the neck. The showiest male attracts the most hens, making survival of his young a certainty. By comparison, females are drab, blending into the background – a trait that helps them hide from predators while nesting.
Dancing pulls in the gals. Impressing a female takes energy, and prairie chickens carry it to an extreme. The males bow, raise their tails and ear-like feathers, drum, dance, mock fight, pivot and posture each trying to line up the most females on their side. Only the healthiest males succeed. Each hen spends several days on the lek. Indifferent to males at first, the hen soon becomes aware of their elaborate displays, eventually flirting with the male she chooses before breeding. One male may attract and breed up to 90 percent of the females on the lek, ensuring genes from the strongest individuals prevail.
All but gone. The quintessential prairie species, populations once stretched from Texas to southern Canada, the Atlantic to Colorado. In Iowa, greater prairie chickens were so abundant that one flight was estimated at 33,000 birds, extending half a mile long, 50 yards wide and three to four birds deep. The last Iowa bird disappeared from Ringgold County in 1956; market hunting decimated the population in the late 1890s and continuing habitat losses made it hard for what was left to survive. Today, biologists strive to return a breeding population to Iowa.
But back again. Recent efforts to restore prairie chickens at the Kellerton Bird Conservation Area may succeed as biologists work to create ideal habitat and import birds from Nebraska to increase genetic diversity. On the leks, males boom only in open areas, with short grass and gentle slopes, where they can readily see predators. Hens nest on the ground in tall grass, usually within a mile of the lek. The downy chicks hatch and follow their mother right away, so they need protein. A mix of wildflowers and tall grasses helps them maneuver and lures in insects for their dining pleasure.
Manufacturing habitat. DNR wildlife biologists work hard to achieve the ideal mix of short and tall grasses with abundant flowers on 4,300 acres of public lands – mowing, burning, disking, seeding, removing trees and brush, and allowing light grazing. They also help private landowners in the Kellerton Grasslands Bird Conservation Area to develop ideal habitat. South of the border, prairie chickens once again populate The Nature Conservancy’s Dunn Ranch, a 3,258-acre restored grassland. TNC uses bison to maintain plant diversity so insects will be plentiful when the chicks hatch and need protein.
Celebrate the spring ritual. Catch the haunting, hollow booming, stutter-step drumming and acrobatic dances on the Kellerton lek, April 8, 2017 at the Prairie Chicken Festival. Grab the kids and binoculars and head to Ringgold County for the sight of a lifetime. Turn south off Highway 2 two miles past Kellerton, just 1.5 hours south of Des Moines. Plan to arrive by 6:30 a.m. for the best parking and viewing. Males will trickle into the lek before dawn, and by 8:30 or 9 a.m., the display will be over. If crowds aren’t your thing, visit the lek any early morning during the first weeks of April.
For more ideas, try our Iowa Wildlife and Natural Iowa Travel boards on Pinterest.