The Greater Prairie Chicken courtship display has all the elements of a successful reality TV show: romance, conflict, suspense. It even adds in showy dances and colorful costumes. You can witness this courtship in the wild, if you’re willing to wake up early in the morning, head to a blind and patiently wait quietly. As fascinating as it is funny to watch, this ritual plays out on a stage of buffalo grass and wide expanse of prairie in what's called a lek, or “gathering place,” where these birds annually meet and mate each spring. The experience is guided by Prairie Chicken Dance Tours on a ranch outside McCook, Nebraska.
As we wrote about in our first article related to the great Sandhill Cranes migration in Nebraska, you don't need to travel half way around the world to experience an ecotourism adventure. Just a two hour drive from the blinds at Rowe Sanctuary where you can witness the Sandhill Cranes is an entirely different nature experience that puts you less than fifty feet away from where Greater Prairie Chickens strut, boom, stomp and clash in a courtship display where the toughest male wins his mate.
“To earn a spot on the lek means you are the toughest guy on the block,” explains Carol Schlegel, Director of the McCook/Red Willow County Visitors Bureau and one of the visionaries behind this tour idea that’s an ingenious blend of both ecotourism and agritourism. “One to two males at each lek are responsible for more than 80 percent of the copulation,” she shares with a wink.
From roughly the end of March through April, there is a window of opportunity to get out in the field at dawn to view these birds. Only recently has the mating ritual evolved into a growing tourist attraction thanks to Prairie Chicken Dance Tours’ launch in 2012. “It’s one of those things that the locals take for granted but visitors from far and wide descend upon McCook to view this one-of-a-kind sight,” admits Schlegel. “We just have one reservation from our 308 local area code this year so far.”
“I first found the lek by accident. My neighbor has one so I figured I must have one too,” says Angus Garey, describing how he first found the lek for the Greater Prairie Chickens on his ranch, land that had been in his family since they settled here in the 1870s. “I got up early one morning and drove up in my pasture and I thought, well I’ll get up on this high spot and then I’ll listen. And maybe I can hear where they’re at. Sure enough there’s starting to just barely be light and I can hear them starting to move.”
"It got just about half light, when all of a sudden I saw one flying right in front of my pickup. And I thought, wow!" Garey continues. With his wool plaid cap and leather jacket, the tall, lanky rancher spryly narrates his discovery of the lek with the glee of a young boy on Christmas morning. "Pretty soon I had half a dozen of 'em just walking around my pickup. I’m just sittin’ there, right in the middle of the lek. They weren’t very impressed. And they kinda tried to move around me, then they all flew off. I knew about the lek about fifteen years ago. Then Carol with the tourism group said: 'I want to see this.' So we actually we sat on five gallon buckets in a pop-up tent and watched. That’s how this whole thing got started.
Prairie Chicken Dance Tours, based in McCook, bring out small groups every spring to witness the mating ritual, antics and, sometimes, heated battles. “If you want to truly visit something, go directly where it lives,” advises Schlegel.
A key advantage to these tours is the full preparation you receive before you immerse and engage in this one-of-a-kind experience. The tour kicks-off the evening before your morning field outing with an orientation by Garey and Schlegel that gives you a crash course overview of Greater Prairie Chickens, including their behavior, what to expect in the blinds and viewing etiquette.
Then it’s off to bed early as the tour starts before sunrise the following morning. The town of McCook offers a range of accommodations, including the Chief Motel. Stop by the Coppermill Steakhouse for classic Nebraskan fare or journey an hour east to Sage Hill Vineyard & Winery for local sips and bed down in the “Winemaker’s Loft.”
In the dark of night -- very early in the morning -- our group of about twenty, the most who would ever go out with Prairie Chicken Dance Tours, were shuttled from McCook to Garey's ranch, down a rough dirt road into a patch of prairie on his land. Upon arrival, we were split into two groups, funneled into two horse trailers that served as makeshift blinds. We were advised to dress warm for those early morning breezes, but kind host Garey had blankets out just in case. While bundled up, the icy cold of the early morning was tempered by the shelter of the blinds and blankets.
We sat, silently, and waited, moving our fingers and toes to keep warm. Just as the first specks of light make the prairie around us visible, six male Prairie Chickens swooped in and landed around the perimeter of the lek, with the dominant male moving into the center. If the Sandhill Crane viewing is like a big Broadway musical with thousands on stage, the Greater Prairie Chicken encounter is an intimate, intense dramatic play where you have a front seat. These slightly larger than a football-sized birds exhibit their own special combination of motion and sound, stomping and drumming their feet rapidly in one spot while uttering a crazy mix of cackling. We stare spell-bound as the birds inflate their neck air sacs to attempt to establish dominance, popping out like a vivid, ripe orange.
“The whole thing has to do with sex,” Garey said with a smile at the orientation the previous night. “You’ll see a female sometimes walk through, strutting her stuff and looking like she isn’t paying any attention but quietly observing who she thinks might be the best male.”
As the morning sun rises, the colors pop around us. A vivid prairie palette with shades of mustard yellow, gold and dark green make us feel like we’re viewing a painting from inside our blind window. One of the males jumps several feet in the air, lands, then lowers his head and runs right into a neighbor male. Just like television, a few feathers may fly, but it’s mostly for show. Greater Prairie Chickens are rarely hurt in these skirmishes. But with an end goal of love and serving as ruler of the lek, the birds remind us it’s worth putting your heart and feathers fully in the game.
When fully light out, perhaps after an hour or a bit more, the birds suddenly fly off to feed for the day. The mating dance and ritual is on hold, until tomorrow.
Lisa Kivirist is a writer, the author of Soil Sisters and founder of the Rural Women’s Project of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service. She is also Senior Fellow, Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota. With her husband John D. Ivanko, she has co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, “9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living”. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine.
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