Love Drummers! (Also Known as Prairie Chickens)

The scientific name of the Greater Prairie Chicken is Tympanuchus cupido. Translated from Latin, that loosely means “drummer of love.” The quirky name comes from its elaborate and famous courtship ritual, and Sunday morning I was lucky enough to witness it.

Greater Prairie Chickens, technically a species of grouse, used to be common, but their numbers plunged as the country’s grasslands were converted to agriculture, and now they’re mostly limited to carefully managed and protected prairie remnants like those found in Central Wisconsin. Anyone can pay $15 for the privilege of getting up at 4 AM on the April morning of their choice, tucking themselves into a wooden blind so small that it’s hard to sit upright, and sitting in the freezing cold darkness waiting for the birds to appear for their performance. It’s totally worth it.

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The males are the ones who put on the display, known as “booming” – they stomp their feet, raise their tails and the feathery pinnae on their necks, and inflate eye-catching orange air sacs that produce a surprisingly melodic fluting sound. In theory, the females then come and choose the best-looking guys. We didn’t see any females while we were there, but that didn’t seem to deter the males, who danced and danced and danced, pausing only when a Northern Harrier swooped over and flushed them temporarily. This sort of communal display is called a “lek.”

055 (1024x768)Each one stakes out his own little territory to perform in, and every so often disputes arise, leading to a lot of chicken-like clucking and cackling and occasional physical aggression (this next photo is very blurry, and the one after it isn’t great either, but you try getting a photo of birds in motion in dim morning light).

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By 7:30 it was fully light, we still had yet to see a single hen, and there was less actual booming and more preening and pecking at seeds going on outside the blind, so we finally left. After reading descriptions of this ritual and seeing many photos of it, getting to witness it first-hand was amazing, and I highly recommend it if you ever get the chance.

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Birds with inflatable orange air sacs in their throats. Nature sure is weird. Weird, but pretty great.

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3 thoughts on “Love Drummers! (Also Known as Prairie Chickens)”

  1. That’s a rare experience. I’d love to see that someday. Unfortunately, that seems more and more unlikely as habitat continues to disappear. They are extirpated here in the prairie provinces now. My Dad told me he had seen the Prairie Chicken leks in Southern Saskatchewan when he was a young fellow (like back in the the 1930’s).

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