Ecotourism Meets Agritourism in Nebraska: Dances with Prairie Chickens, Part 2

| 4/17/2017 3:06:00 PM

Greater Prairie Chickens Mating Ritual

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.”

Discovering the Lek and Prairie Chickens

“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.”

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