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Greater Prairie Chickens

Spring Dance

We attended two spring dances this year. One is an annual event and the other a first time experience. Strange thing for a couple of photographers to say in a nature publication, you think. However it is true. The dance floors were stubbly prairies about 400 miles apart, as the crow flies. We were wall flowers (in canvas blinds), there to witness the wonderful displays of the Greater Prairie Chicken in northern Missouri and the Sharp-tailed Grouse in northwest Wisconsin. Reservations for lek-edge seating are required at both locations.

Instead of staying up late for these two dances, it is necessary to be ready well before first light. While the dancers wore stylish feathers, we were in coveralls, boots and fleece. The farm wagon outfitted with a canvas blind provided mezzanine seating at the Dunn Ranch near Eagleville, Missouri; the site of our annual visit to that lek. The Nature Conservancy and the Missouri State Conservation Department protect the dance floor and provide the blind and a guide for those who observe this yearly tango. We attended the Sharp-tailed Grouse flamenco dance at the Crex Meadows near Grantsburg, WI for the first time; where the blinds are hunkered low by the lek and the dancers perform.

The two dances to attract the ladies have some elements in common: birds with feathered leggings; an open short-stubble location, often on a slight ridge or raised area; nearby cover for intermissions as hawks fly over; early spring weather; 'face-offs', music and distinct dance steps. The music and the steps differ but the performances are ancient instinctual rituals. The ladies are probably observing from the longer grasses and occasionally stroll through to observe more closely, while feigning indifference.

Prairie Chickens move in fluid tango-like sweeps, stopping to inflate their orange and rose air sacs and produce the wonderful yodeling coo that carries long distances on still crisp cold morning air. They perform a bit more acrobatic jumping than did the Sharp-tailed Grouse, especially when birds are facing off on their imaginary territorial boundaries. Territories are well defined in their minds and birds are quite vigorous in patrolling from side to side to defend their perimeters. Occasionally a bird may have two separate territories between which he alternates. We have seen a meadowlark make the mistake of landing on a lek and being charged by the three nearest Prairie Chickens.

The sound of the wing feather rattles and clock-work fancy footsteps of the Sharp-tailed Grouse has all the force of a flamenco dancer with taps on his shoes. Their air sacs are a lovely magenta and emit a melody that lingers on the mind. The exquisitely eerie sounds played beautifully against the calls of Sandhill Cranes in the marsh nearby. As the Grouse charged about with whirring wings and staccato feet, their powder puff tails with pointy handles brought smiles to our faces.

At close range, the facial expressions on these closely related species, as they dipped their heads to fill their air sacs, did remind us of an Airedale we once owned. She was prone to car sickness and needed to be told to think about something else when she got that expression. When the birds looked up from their booming, they thought about something else, that expression disappeared and the dances continued.

There are other spring dances to enjoy. The aerial ballet of woodcocks in the dusk is much admired as they sometimes dance well into the night when the moon and stars give enough light. House wrens don't dance as much as play "Put your right foot in, take your right foot out" as a pair bounces in and out of a potential nest box. Ruffed Grouse have their drumming logs. It is said some species move in certain subtle patterns as they sing their territorial songs. Western Grebes dance on water and eagles sometimes grip their talons as they roll in a sky-dance. These dances identify and mean something to all members of a species. We humans also attempt to find meaning; whether we watch with pleasure, collect data and photographs, or imitate birds in our own dances.

© Linda & Robert Scarth, 2006.

First published in NatureScape News, 1 (6), 12, 2006.

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Linda & Robert Scarth


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