Mating Season For Prairie Chickens

May 12, 2017

Every spring, Greater prairie chickens dance in the Grasslands hoping to find a mate. South Dakota is one of the few places where the birds still thrive. Viewing blinds are set up for 2 months in the Grasslands near Fort Pierre so spectators can watch the process and hear them sing.

It’s nearly 5 a.m. and stars fill the clear sky as cars start to arrive at the Fort Pierre Ranger District Office. Dan Svingen is the District Ranger. Inside, he points to two taxidermy birds hanging on the wall.

“And we’re very lucky to have 2 species of prairie grouse here. That is not the case in most of the United States. We have the sharp tail grouse and the Greater prairie chicken. We’re going to go to a lek now that most of this spring has had only greater prairie chicken.”

Svingen grabs binoculars, a camera and extra jackets before heading towards the lek—or mating area. He tells his 3 passengers what to expect as we travel down the bumpy gravel roads in the Grasslands. 

“I’m going to drive up the blind and I’ll unload you 3. And again—use your flashlights and just be careful when you get into the blind. The sooner you can get in and get settled, the better.”  

He stops the truck in front of a wooden box in the middle of a field. This is the blind where observers sit to watch the Greater prairie chickens mate. It’s 4 feet wide, 8 feet long and 5 feet tall. We hurry inside and unfold small chairs. There are several windows cut into three sides of the walls that are just large enough to fit a camera through. We open the curtains and wait.

A haunting sound surrounds the blind.

Prairie chickens become visible as the sun starts to rise. They don’t look like the chickens you’d find on farms. The birds are light brown with dark brown stripes, small heads and round bodies.

One hen is present. The males hold their wings tight against their bodies and move through the tall grass. Bright orange spots appear on the sides of their necks as they call out. Svingen explains that these are esophageal air sacs. Every so often, the chickens crouch down in front of one another and fight.

After more than an hour, Svingen leads the group back to the truck.

Lockett: “So that sound was the mating call?”

Svingen: “Yeah. So the booming is ‘I’m a handsome devil. Come and take a look at me.’ The cackling has a lot of functions but it’s certainly very common in aggressive interactions between the males. And what’s called the whoop call—did you hear that—that’s made when a female is present.”

Lockett: “Which one is the whoop call?”

Svingen: “Whoop! I’ve been doing this 40 years and everyday has been special. This morning was really special. We’re getting them pretty late in the mating season and to be lucky when a female comes in. She may well have lost her first nest, she may be coming in to re-nest or she may have been a late nester. But she certainly got the males going.”

He says he counted 11 chickens at one time and that’s a lot for the area.

Back at the office, Svingen pulls out graphs that show the number of prairie chickens near Fort Pierre over the years.    

“Around the country, Greater prairie chickens are not doing well as a species. There’s 3 subspecies—one is endangered, one is extinct. And the last subspecies, which is the one that we have here, is declining in many areas. The exception is right here in the middle of the Great Plains. So in Central and Sothern South Dakota, parts of Nebraska, parts of Colorado and a few other spots the chickens are doing well. And so it’s quite the treat to be able to go out your backyard and access one of the most spectacular wildlife displays that North America has to offer.”

This year’s mating season is almost over for the birds, but they’ll boom in the Prairie next Spring.