I’ll never forget the first live prairie chicken I ever saw. Several of us University of North Dakota fish and wildlife biology students met at Starcher Hall on campus at the absurd hour of 3 a.m. on a Saturday morning in March to pile into a van and make the journey to Tympanuchus Wildlife Management Area (WMA) from Grand Forks to southeast of Crookston.

Tympanuchus, by the way, is the genus name for the prairie chicken.

Arriving at the WMA’s parking lot well before sunup, we assembled outside in the dark and were soon hiking in single file through the prairie grass with our professor Dr. Richard Crawford, flashlight in hand, leading the way. We were instructed to keep quiet and not talk.

Our destination? Two makeshift prairie chicken viewing blinds (compliments of the staff at Minnesota DNR’s Area Wildlife office in Crookston) had been previously and conspicuously placed on an area of the grassland where a very special show would soon commence. The so-called blinds were simple structures not much different in appearance as ice fishing shanties.

Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek
Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek

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Quietly, our ensemble split up evenly and piled into each of the blinds to begin our morning vigil of waiting in the cold darkness of a relatively calm spring morning, our breaths hanging in the air as we whispered excitedly to each other about what we were doing and what we were hopeful to soon observe.

Indeed, we were all gathered on very special grounds: “booming grounds,” as we learned in our ornithology and wildlife management classes. Such places are where male greater prairie chickens (Tympanuchus cupido) congregate to perform courtship displays replete with amazing “booming” sounds created from inflating the bright yellow-orange air sacs on the sides of their necks. The whole affair and all its communal commotion of sound and movement is individually orchestrated to attract potential mates. Fights break out among competing males and chasing occurs when males chase each other and prospective female mates.

The hoots and moans that prairie chickens produce are eerie sounding and the performances are generally conducted at dawn to attract hens. Male chickens also erect special neck feathers, called pinnae, during their foot-stamping musical courtship displays, too. The ringside spectacle is a nature show in all its grandeur, not to mention a performance worth the admission of getting out of bed for.

Prairie chickens belong to a very large order of birds called Galliformes. Ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, wild turkeys, bobwhite quail, and the non-native ring-necked pheasant and gray partridge are also members of this order of birds. Prairie chicken chicks, which hatch from ground nests on the prairie grasslands of northwestern Minnesota and other states in the Great Plains, are down-covered and capable of moving about and feeding on insects on their own soon after hatching.

All baby gallinaceous birds throughout the world are unique from other “precocial” avian nestlings of other species of birds such as ducks and geese. Newly hatched gallinaceous birds develop functional wing feathers within their first week or two of life, yet are only about a third grown. Having flight feathers at such an early age is important for ground nesting/dwelling birds like prairie chickens in order to escape predators.

That prairie chickens still call parts of Minnesota home is testament to their ability to persist despite the fact that less than 1% of their original grassland habitat still exists on the landscape.

Thanks to valiant efforts by DNR, Unites States Fish & Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society, Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, Pheasants Forever, Minnesota Audubon Society, and other organizations, along with farmers and ranchers that practice good conservation on their own or through such programs as Conservation Reserve Program and other programs in order to protect important tracts of critical grassland habitat, prairie chickens continue to gather on traditional booming grounds each spring to perform and dance as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.