Where the Wild Things Are: Greater Prairie Chickens
Welcome to “Where the Wild Things Are,” a monthly series where we feature a unique native species — and the best spots to glimpse these creatures. This month we’re featuring the eccentric Prairie Chicken.
Large, feathered, and noisy, the prairie chicken isn’t all that different from a typical fowl. However, a few distinct qualities set the birds apart. Male prairie chickens feature orange feathers above their eyes and a pair of inflatable neck sacs. These sacs are also bright orange and puff up during the bird’s notable mating practice.
The mating ritual takes place in late March through April. Before dawn, the first prairie chickens appear. The males approach an area of short-grass prairie, also know as a booming ground, and begin to stomp their feet. The chicken’s neck sacs inflate with air as they dance, and they emit their distinctive mating call. Low, booming, and hollow, the song attracts females, but also other males that the chicken may have to fight off if it wishes to mate.
Prairie chickens used to be abundant across Iowa, but habitat destruction and market hunting led to their absence for nearly half a century. In the early 1980s, the Iowa DNR released birds into the Loess Hills area, but the attempt was unsuccessful. In 1987, however, the birds were reintroduced in Ringgold County, and now Kellerton Grasslands Bird Conservation Area (BCA) is home to a small flock.
Kellerton was the first BCA in the state, and boasts some of the most suitable prairie chicken habitat. The chickens prefer an expanse of diverse wild grasses and forbs, and they require open spaces to mate. The open spaces, or leks, are used year after year. Their protection is crucial to the chicken’s success because the short grass allows the male to see any approaching predators while wooing females.
Over the years, INHF has helped expand Kellerton BCA. In 2005, we purchased and transferred an 80-acre addition to the Iowa DNR. Today, the area consists of over 4,000 protected acres.
The Ringgold County Conservation Board has sponsored a Prairie Chicken Day at Kellerton for over a decade. Anyone interested in watching the ritual is welcome to attend this year’s event on Saturday, April 2, starting at dawn.