At dawn on a cool spring morning, the male steps out into the open prairie. Fanning out his tail feathers and raising the two sets of feather tufts on his head, he starts calling for a mate. The call of the Greater Prairie-Chicken is no ordinary bird song; the male inflates brightly-colored air sacs on the side of his throat to make a deep "booming" sound while rapidly stomping his feet on the ground ("dancing"). Males gather on booming grounds (also called "leks") to show off their booming and dancing skills, and hopefully catch the eye of a watching female.
A medium-sized grouse, prairie chickens were abundant in tallgrass prairies in the eastern and central United States at the time of European settlement. Their numbers began to decline in the late 1800s because of habitat loss and market hunting. The last known nesting in Iowa occurred in Appanoose County in 1952.
Today, most of the Greater Prairie-Chickens are found in Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, with small populations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reintroduced prairie chickens to Iowa twice in the 1980s - in the Loess Hills in Monona County and the Ringgold Wildlife Area in Ringgold County. While the Loess Hills attempt did not succeed, the Iowa DNR was able to establish a wild-nesting population from the birds released in Ringgold. In 1999, the Kellerton Grasslands Bird Conservation Area (BCA) was created using the Ringgold Wildlife Area and other surrounding land.
Prairie Chicken Range and Known Lek Sites in Iowa
The Kellerton Grasslands BCA is being actively managed to provide the best habitat for the prairie chickens. Leks have little to no vegetation in order to give females the best view of the display, so males are very vulnerable. Allowing any trees or shrubs to grow near the booming grounds could provide a perch for predators. Taller grasses nearby offer a place for females to nest. A large and diverse spread of grassland is needed to support this species.
So how do you know if you've seen or heard a prairie chicken?
The Iowa DNR really needs your help! In order to ensure this species stays in Iowa we need to know how prairie chickens are distributed in Southern Iowa. Sightings of prairie chickens are possible in Adair, Madison, Adams, Union, Clarke, Taylor, Ringgold, Decatur and Wayne Counties.
If you see any prairie chickens, whether it is on a booming ground or was flushed out of some grass, we would like to hear about it. Call Stephanie at 515-432-2823 ext 102 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
We will want to know when you saw the bird, what it looked like, and where exactly you saw it.
Greater Prairie-Chickens are brown with whitish barring. Both sexes have elongated neck feathers that normally lay down on either side of the back of the neck. The tail is short and rounded and solid brown in males; barred in females. You can further tell males and females apart by orange "eyebrows" and orange-pink air sacs on the males. In comparison female pheasants are more speckled with brown and white rather than barred and the tail is long and pointed.
When displaying male prairie chickens make a distinct noise referred to as booming which resembles a sort of pulsating hum (similar to blowing air across a bottle top) interspersed with occasional whoops.
To hear and see the prairie chicken booming follow the link to watch a short video put together by the Missouri Department of Conservation: