Yesterday morning my mom and I got up ridiculously early (5:00!!) to drive to Prairie Ridge State Natural Area. Our goal: observing the mating ritual of the Greater Prairie Chicken. We had seen them the previous day (see my earlier post, Who put the F in Effingham?), but a quick look in the afternoon was not going to satisfy us. We wanted to see the whole performance.
When we arrived, it was around 6:00, and the morning had become washed with gray with that false dawn light, right before the sun rises. Another pair of birders was already in place, a nice couple from the Quad City area. I looked out over the ridge through my scope, and sure enough, there were some chickens, although they were mostly dark shapes in the pre-dawn light.
But even before they were really visible, I could hear them. The haunting, eerie sound is emitted from the orange air sacs on their necks, a three-note booming sound that has been described as someone blowing over a jug and that can be heard from up to a mile away. It does sound kind of like that. But it also sounds like a beautiful, plaintive humming. It resonates, evoking memories that the land still carries.... It is like the sound of the grassland itself. (On a science fiction note, it made me think of the Doctor Who story "The Song of the Ood," although that was about weird-looking squid-aliens, not prairie chickens.) Interspersed with the humming were bouts of cackling and clucking -- what my mom described as sounds right from the jungle.
The sun rose a little, and now we could see them: a group of greater prairie chickens displaying on their mating ground, called a lek. The males puffed up their air sacs, raised the feathers around their necks until they stuck up like horns, charged each other, jumped up and fluttered in the air, all to impress the female birds, who didn't really seem all that interested in their efforts. Every once in a while a northern harrier would swoop overhead, causing some of the chickens to scatter, but then they would return a few minutes later. Another birder from Missouri showed up, and the five of us watched the chickens for the better part of an hour, pointing out when we saw one doing something particularly interesting.
About an hour after the sun rose, the chickens seemed to be running out of steam, and we decided to head out and get some breakfast. We took another quick drive around the prairie, enjoying the peacefulness of the early morning. It is always such a treat to be away from traffic and crowds of people, and the grassland was quite attractive, even so early in the year. We had a nice look at a pair of flickers and some horned larks, too. Then, with some regret, we decided it was time to leave the prairie behind.
Today I decided to do some research on the Internet to learn a bit more about the wonderful spectacle that we witnessed. The greater prairie chicken is actually a kind of grouse, and it was once abundant from Canada all the way to Texas. At first, changes that the European settlers brought to the landscape benefited the chickens, and their numbers grew to 10 to 14 million birds in Illinois in the 1850s. Prairie chicken meat was considered delicious, and they were hunted by the trainload. Mark Twain considered them one of his favorite foods.
But destruction of their habitat, and the switch to intensive modern agriculture, severely reduced their numbers, almost eliminating them from the state. The prairie chickens could not survive in fields of corn. Across the land, their numbers dwindled. They are now virtually extinct in Canada, the Attwater's Prairie Chicken in Texas is barely holding on, and the eastern Heath Hen is extinct. In Illinois, the population lingered in Jasper and Marion counties because they liked to live in the fields of red top grass which used to be a main crop, used for dye. As artificial dyes reduced the demand for red top grass, this habitat also became scarce for the chickens.
By 1933, prairie chicken hunting was closed because of the falling population, and soon lands were set aside for their conservation: the Green River Conservation Area in 1939 and the Iroquois County Conservation Area in 1944. Despite these measures, by 1960, the area that my mom and I visited, Jasper and Marion counties, was the only place that the prairie chicken still survived.
Many groups worked valiantly to save the chickens and their habitat, purchasing and restoring grasslands in the counties. Despite these efforts, low genetic diversity was taking its toll, and by 1994, a mere 46 birds remained. In order to save the flock, birds were brought in from Minnesota and Kansas.
Today, a few hundred (I was unable to find a precise number) survive in this last hold-out at Prairie Ridge. The habitat is carefully managed, and the director, Scott Simpson, burns part of the prairie each year to clear away excess growth and add nutrients to the soil. Also, cattle from local farmers are hired to graze the fields, as the bison would have done in the past.
Knowing how precarious the survival of this magnificent bird is, and how many people have worked so hard to preserve its existence in Illinois, only adds to the enjoyment of my trip. Without all the work of those individuals, I would not have been able to see the spectacular dawn display of chickens. And there is something very humbling -- and wonderful (in the true meaning of the word, "full of wonder") to think how ancient that mating ritual is, and what a privilege my opportunity to see it.
With that, I would like to give a huge shout out to everyone who has worked to save the greater prairie chicken in Illinois, and the following bibliography for everyone who would like to learn more:
Prairie Ridge State Natural Area
Illinois Audubon Society
Prairie Hens of Illinois (Living Bird article)
Greater Prairie Chicken Appears on Comeback Trail in Illinois (article)