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KELLERTON, Iowa - The first rhythmic and haunting cooing can be heard as the night sky fades and sunrise begins. The short grass prairie booming grounds prepares for a display found nowhere else in Iowa.
This is prairie chicken country and April 4 will mark the 17th Annual Prairie Chicken Day at the Kellerton Wildlife Management Area, in Ringgold County. Activities begin around 6 a.m., originating from the elevated viewing platform on 300th Avenue, southwest of Kellerton.
This annual ritual begins as early as mid-March and lasts through April. Male prairie chickens meet at the booming grounds every morning to display, spar and fight with other males trying to catch the eye of the females watching nearby.
“They will be out there until 8 or so, when they begin to slow down,” said Stephanie Shepherd, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Diversity Program.
She said there are typically 20-40 birds that use the lek at Kellerton, and they will display each morning regardless of the weather.
“Some mornings you can hear them and some you can’t. They are out there every day, but are less active if it’s raining or really cloudy,” she said. While there will be some spotting scopes available to use, attendees are encouraged to bring their own or a set of binoculars.
The prairie chicken population at Kellerton has benefited from a collaboration between the states of Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska, and the Nature Conservancy, Blank Park Zoo and the Ringgold County Conservation Board. The collaboration extended to area cattle producers who help manage 30 percent of the grasslands through grazing.
“There has been a lot of collaboration to improve the landscape across the state line to recreate 160,000 acres of rolling hills of grass with few trees,” Shepherd said. “This partnership benefits not only the prairie chicken, but other grassland species as well.”
One grassland species in particular, the Henslow’s sparrow, has benefited from this partnership. The Henslow’s sparrow is listed as a state threatened species in Iowa but the population at Kellerton is so large the area has been recognized as globally important for this species.
The Kellerton Wildlife Management Area was dedicated as Iowa’s first Bird Conservation Area in 2001 when it simultaneously became the first grassland Bird Conservation Area in the country. It was formally dedicated as a Globally Important Bird Area in 2018.
Walking with the birds
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) state bird expert, avian ecologist Anna Buckardt Thomas, is hosting a series of bird walks through some of Iowa’s highest-quality bird habitat, beginning April 4 at the Kellerton Bird Conservation Area in conjunction with the Prairie Chicken Festival.
Buckardt Thomas will be at the Kellerton viewing platform from 6:30-9 a.m., to discuss the birds seen and heard at the booming ground. She may include a short walk after the prairie chicken displaying is complete, if there’s interest.
“You can never predict what we’ll see or hear, and that’s what makes it fun,” she said. “We’ll see what we see.”
Guided Birding Hike - Prairie Chicken Day
April 4, 6:30-9 a.m., Originating from the Kellerton Viewing Platform. Part of the Prairie Chicken Festival. May include a short walk after the prairie chicken displaying is complete, if there’s interest.