With a blue moon light casting over the prairie, there I was in my photo blind, waiting. When my eyes finally adjusted to the darkness of the dawn, I realized I was not alone. Ghost-like shadows passed my blind, and then followed deep hollow sounds, “oo-loo-woo.”
A male Prairie Chicken ran forward a short distance, then it stopped suddenly, and stamped his feet in a half or full circle. His bright orange air sacs inflated, and his eyebrows were expanded. With his long neck feathers erect and his tail spread fanwise, he let out a deep, resonant sound.
Under the dim moonlight, the sound echoed across a prairie, and somehow their calls penetrated deep into my soul like an old spirit’s whisper to my ears; it sounded lonely and sad.
If there are a number of incidents that could change one’s life, the morning I made my first observation of Prairie Chickens in 2001 was surely one of them.
Following my first observation, I was eager to learn and know more about grouses. I found out that the population of these magnificent species has been rapidly declining with very little attention from the public.
Lowell Pugh, an emeritus member of the Missouri Prairie Foundation, who has observed Prairie Chickens for over 50 years, growing up in his hometown, Golden City, Missouri, said that he often crawled on the wet and muddy grass to get a close look at his beloved grouse.
Pugh, however, is deeply concerned about the rapid decrease of this species these days. “I used to see flocks of Prairie Chickens cruising over the prairie during winter back when I was young,” said Pugh. Sadly, the prairie where he had once observed hundreds of Prairie Chickens, there are only three males left to keep the ground. He believes that it won’t be long before he has to witness the final chapter of their life. “It is sad to see them disappear. I will miss them,” said Pugh.
Prairie Chickens (pinnate grouse) were once common birds throughout the North American prairie. As early as 1900, there were three sub-species of Prairie Chicken: the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, the Greater, and the Heath Hen. Today there are two species remaining, and one of them, Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, is in a serious danger to follow the path of Heath Hen which went extinct in 1932 on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
Soon my interest expanded to all of North American grassland grouse and their unique spring courtship behaviors.
Observers of the greater prairie chicken call this booming. In lesser chickens, it’s gobbling or yodeling. Sharptail enthusiasts call it dancing or, sometimes, hooting; among sage grouse biologists, it’s known as strutting. For the extinct heath hen, it was called tooting. Different terms for the same kind of behavior, the communal spring courtship gatherings of America’s grassland grouse. Specialists in animal behavior apply the same term to all the variations — lekking.
The courtship displays of males are conducted on a lek or a booming ground during springtime. The leks are typically located on an elevated, open area where grassland vegetation is short, visibility is good, and sounds can be heard for a mile or more.
On the lekking ground, each male establishes a territory whose boundaries are somewhat flexible. Each male is master in his own territory, and most of his booming and mating are done there. Males prefer to use the same ground year after year.
My day usually began around 4:00a.m as I arrived to the prairie. I walked in complete darkness though I could see millions of stars in the sky. It took me good half an hour of walking with my heavy camera backpack. First thing I did before entering the blind was to check it with flash light to ensure that there is nothing hiding inside. Animals such as mice would use my blind as their temporary shelter. As the result some snakes also moved in and waited for an unlucky mouse or a photographer.
The male tried to use my blind to get an advantage of a high view when a female arrived.
As I pressed my hand against the top of my blind, I could feel his feet, stamping in a rapid motion. .
It was one of the most mesmerizing moments in my photography experience. It brought me a big laugh and sadness at the same time. How long will I be able to see their booming dance and hear their sounds?
Will there be a tomorrow for them to dance again?
I hope so…