In northwestern Minnesota, there was once a huge glacial lake, Lake Agassiz, that formed after the last ice age. It covered an area that stretched from Canada on its northern border to South Dakota at its southernmost point. Today, all that is left of the ancient lake are the defined beach ridges and the Red River of the North that flows into Canada. The former lake bed now provides some of the richest farmland in the United States.
Long before immigrants found their way to Minnesota and changed the landscape, over half of the state was prairie. Early pioneers described the land as “an ocean of head-high grasses and flowers extending as far as the eye could see.”
This native prairie was home to an abundance of wildlife such as elk, buffalo, grizzly bears, and all sorts of small game and birds, including the iconic greater prairie chicken. Early accounts describe vast numbers of “chickens” as numerous as blackbirds. As the prairies fell to the plow and grazing, unfortunately, so did several species of game. Wild grizzly bears and buffalo are no longer found in Minnesota, and the resident elk population has been reduced to a few small herds in the far northwestern part of the state.
But while settlement and farming decimated other species, the prairie chicken seemed to flourish and expand. In Minnesota, it is thought that prairie chickens were originally only found in the very southeast portion of the state; there are records of the bird near Minneapolis in 1839. As settlement marched north and west, so did the prairie chicken, extending its range across Minnesota and into Montana and Alberta, Canada. By 1916, in less than 80 years, its range covered 1,000 miles. At the turn of the century, prairie chickens were found in over 90 percent of present-day Minnesota.
Across the Midwest in states such as Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota, the same story was being told. The birds were so plentiful that hundreds were shot by individual families in a single day. Birds not kept for personal use were often shipped to markets on the East Coast and even Europe. Because they were so numerous, many farmers trapped and shot the prairie chicken to keep the vast numbers of birds from decimating their small corn and wheat fields. Come spring, prairie chicken eggs became both table fare and a source of income for farm families.
My father was born in 1923 and grew up on a small farm along what was once the beach ridge of Lake Agassiz. Dad used to tell me stories about the abundance of wildlife that inhabited the prairie near their farm, and how they had to rely on hunting and fishing to supplement their meals in lean times. One story that always fascinated me was his description of hunting prairie chickens in the late fall after a heavy snow. Dad said he and one of his brothers would hitch a horse to a cutter (a type of sleigh) and head out across the prairie.
Dad recalled that the prairie chickens were so numerous that with only a .22 caliber single-shot rifle and a handful of shells, they could shoot enough “chickens” to feed their family of 10.
These birds, as the name suggests, make their habitat in open prairie and grasslands. They are fast fliers and have a tendency to flush at farther distances than other upland birds, so they test the skill and marksmanship of those hunters who pursue them.
Adults of both sexes are medium-sized and stocky with round wings. They have short tails, which are typically rounded and dark in color. Both males and females have uniformly barred plumage, and the males have orange comblike feathers over their eyes and dark, elongated head feathers that can be raised or laid along their neck. Males also possess a circular unfeathered neck patch that can be inflated and displayed during courtship. As with many other bird species, the females have shorter head feathers and lack the male prairie chicken’s yellow comb and orange neck patch.
Prairie chickens feed mostly on insects, seeds, grains and fruits. They hide their nests in tall, dense grass, laying seven to 17 eggs, which the female incubates for 23 to 26 days.
Legendary mating rituals
Females typically lead hatchlings to shorter grass, which is also the scene of elaborate mating rituals where males drum their feet in stylized dances and make a “booming” call that can be heard for more than a mile. The open courtship areas are known as “leks” or “booming grounds,” and the courtship displays are the species’ most famous trait. Their displays consist of inflating the air sacs located on the side of their neck and snapping their tails. The male prairie chickens stay on the booming grounds for up to two months. The breeding season usually begins in late March – depending on state and location – and runs through April. Studies have shown that the dominant one or two males in a booming area are responsible for up to 90 percent of the mating.
The three subspecies of the greater prairie chicken have met radically different fates. The heath hen became extinct in 1932. Attwater’s prairie hen survives only in small portions of southeast Texas and is listed as endangered in the United States. The greater prairie chicken, though threatened and isolated in much of its range, remains numerous enough to be hunted in six states.
Besides loss of habitat, the greater prairie chicken also is threatened by loss of genetic variation because the populations are so isolated across their remaining range with no natural corridors among the groups of birds. Most management practices focus on habitat improvement, but it is thought that population reintroduction eventually may be necessary to ensure genetic diversity. Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota are home to the most diverse and viable populations.
Prairie chickens can be found in 10 different states, and Kansas and Nebraska have the greatest populations of the bird.
As far as the capability of the bird to withstand harsh weather, prairie chicken adults are exceptionally hardy birds and are seldom significantly threatened by severe winter weather. Should deep snows occur, their ability to dive into the snow for roosting helps shield them from cold temperatures and windchills above the snow surface. More significant weather threats to greater prairie chickens sometimes come in the form of excessive, drenching rains during nesting or when chicks are very small and most vulnerable to chilling.
The future of the prairie chicken is somewhat uncertain. To maintain a stable population of prairie chickens, it is essential to have large tracts of suitable grassland habitat. With the added pressure caused by high demand of tillable land for row crops, the conservation of native grasslands is crucial to prevent the loss of nesting and booming grounds. Organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and various state game and fish departments are working together to develop long-range habitat conservation to allow future generations to experience the beauty and even the taste of a bird that followed, expanded and helped sustain early settlers across the prairie.
Tim Nephew is a freelance writer who lives in northwestern Minnesota, which gives him the opportunity to pursue prairie chickens across the same broken prairie that his father hunted more than 75 years ago.
Read more: Learn all about another classic country game bird in Ring-Necked Pheasant: A Colorful Look at Rural America's Favorite Game Bird.