All About the Greater Prairie Chicken

The greater prairie chicken was once a classic rural icon, but now its future is not so certain.

| November/December 2012

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.”

Favorable habitat

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.

Good times

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.

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