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A prairie dance

A cooing, humming sound hangs over the Hamden Slough prairie like the blanket of fog nearly every April morning.

A farmer's implement? A pump endlessly moving water?

Try the Greater Prairie Chicken looking for a mate.

According to former Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge manager Mike Murphy, the cooing sound is a low frequency call that could possibly be heard for miles by other prairie chickens.

Nearly every spring morning at dawn, the chickens show up at their communal display site -- known as a lek -- in the hopes of finding a mate. The sounds and dances the males perform are known as booming, which is done for three to four hours each morning, and is considered one of the most stirring wildlife spectacles to observe.

The courtship displays of the male prairie chicken are elaborate and noisy -- strutting and stamping their feet, shaking their wings, fanning tails, raising neck feathers and inflating orange air sacs on their necks.

Confrontations between two males can sometimes be deadly, as they jump high in the air, striking each other with their feet, wings and bills.

The Hamden Slough prairie chicken lek was pinpointed in 2003, with a systematic search near the bottom of Hamden Lake, Murphy said. The following year, the refuge built and placed an observation blind near the lek for the public to see the spring displays of the Prairie Chicken. The blind has been moved ever closer to the lek each year for better observation.

Murphy said there were 33 chickens counted the first year and in the peak of the mating season in 2004, there were 51 chickens on the lek. This reporter counted 25 to 30 chickens, with about 10 males on the morning of April 17.

Prairie chickens like to see distances, so in an attempt to help the species along, the prairie near Hamden Lake is mowed for greater visibility. Murphy said the mowing also aids in attracting ducks and helps the seven nesting pairs of marbled godwits near Hamden Lake.

Mowing the prairie also has its disadvantages, Murphy said.

"The mowed area gives very little cover from hawks and other predators," he said. "I've seen some hens nearly disappear in just two inches of grass, though. You wouldn't know they were there unless you had just seen them."

Prairie chickens once numbered in the millions on the prairies and oak woodlands of the central United States and Canada.

The segmentation of native prairie to farmland has diminished breeding success and the species faces threats from predation and from egg laying by Ring-necked pheasants in greater prairie chicken nests. Even where still present, their future remains in grave doubt.

The Hamden Slough Prairie Chicken "boomer blind" is available to the public at no charge, but an appointment is necessary. Contact the Detroit Lakes Wetland Management Office at 847-4431 to make an appointment.