By Dwayne Elmore
Stillwater News Press
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Each morning from late March through early May, male prairie-chickens gather in the pre-dawn darkness to perform an ancient ritual.
They drop their wings to the ground, fan their tails, inflate brightly colored air sacs on their neck and emit a low mournful booming sound as they dance across the prairie. All this effort is to attract a female prairie-chicken, who coyly watches from a distance.
These gathering locations of males, known as leks or booming grounds, are typically found on high prairie ridges with little vegetation. These features allow the males to be seen by the females. While leks sometimes move around the landscape, the locations tend to be the same from year to year and are only found in areas of wide-open prairie with little tree cover or human intrusion.
Oklahoma has two species of prairie-chickens: the greater and lesser. The greater prairie-chicken was historically found across the eastern half of the state, while the lesser prairie-chicken occupied the western portions of the state, including the panhandle.
They provided a food source for both Native Americans and early European settlers. In fact, it is rumored that Oklahoma State University’s location in Stillwater is partly due to a prairie-chicken dinner and ample “spirits.”
Prairie-chickens hold a cultural place not only for Oklahoma, but across much of the Great Plains and Midwest, as several Native American tribes had ceremonial dances inspired by the spring mating displays of these prairie grouse. Unfortunately, prairie-chickens are declining in Oklahoma.
Greater prairie-chickens are now largely confined to the grasslands of Osage County, where some of the largest remaining areas of tallgrass prairie remain. The prairie-chickens and open prairie that sustained early Stillwater residents are long gone.
Similarly, lesser prairie-chickens are now only found in scattered pockets in northwestern Oklahoma and the panhandle. Loss of prairie to land conversion, redcedar encroachment and urbanization has greatly reduced the number of prairie-chickens our state has.
If you have never witnessed the spring display of prairie-chickens, make an effort to do so now. I’ve had the opportunity to take many people from around the world to see these remarkable birds, and the smiles generated were worth the early mornings.
The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve and areas immediately to the west and north are a good starting point for seeing greater prairie-chickens. Remember this is private land. Respect the landowners and only listen and view the prairie-chickens from the county roads.
Lesser prairie-chickens are a little easier to view as there is a Lesser Prairie-Chicken Festival each spring. Visit http://lektreks.org/ for information on the April festival.
Prairie-chickens are part of Oklahoma’s cultural heritage. To lose them would be to lose not only biological diversity, but also part of what made this state and its people.
Dwayne Elmore is Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension wildlife specialist in the department of natural resource ecology and management.