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Greater Prairie Chicken

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

June 23, 2024

I am not a stranger to getting up at O’ dark thirty, to be able to get out and capture some images of wildlife. Over the past 40 years I would say it is definitely in the hundreds if not thousands of times I’ve dragged myself out of bed so early. So, last week when the alarm went off at 4 am it wasn’t a surprise. For what felt like the millionth time, I got up and got ready to go out.

I grabbed a few snacks for breakfast and a bottle of water and headed out to my truck. Sometimes I think my truck is getting tired of this early morning routine, but my old truck fired up and we headed out on the road. It was a short drive before I exited the main road and got onto a series of dusty gravel roads. Many miles later, with a cloud of dirt bellowing behind me, I pulled up to the desired location.

Of course, it was still dark, so I needed to gather up all my camera gear by feeling around in the dark taking care not to drop anything. I wasn’t sure which of my large lenses I should take with me. I thought about it for a minute weighing the pros and cons of each lens. I finally settled on the shorter of the two long lenses. I mounted the lens and camera on the tripod, grabbed a few extra batteries and made sure I had memory cards.

First, I slung my chair blind on my back and strapped on my short lens over my shoulder. Next, I hoisted my big camera and tripod over my right shoulder. This is more of a balancing act than anything. It’s so heavy and all the weight lands only on my right shoulder. Altogether, the blind and camera gear weighed well over 40 pounds.

I figured I had everything I needed so I headed out walking in the dark. The overnight temperatures where below freezing and so there was a layer of frost on the grass. It was a very long walk out to the location I needed to be before the sun came up. Looking to my right I could see a glow on the eastern horizon. The sun was on its way. I needed to get going.

About 20 minutes later, I was winded and breathing heavily from the long trek. I could see the area I needed to be, so I set up my chair blind and aligned my tripod and camera facing the right direction. I sat down and pulled the blind material over my head, and just-like-that, I was covered up and hidden except for the front of my lens sticking out.

Now it was time to make sure I have everything I might need within easy reach while it was still dark. Too much moving around will scare the birds, so preparation is important to a successful shoot. I knew shortly the sun would come up and the birds would be arriving. I was out in the middle of an extremely large windswept prairie area and the Greater Prairie Chicken’s would soon be arriving on their traditional booming ground.

The Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) is sometimes called the Pinnated Grouse because of a set of feathers, called pinnated feathers, near the neck of the male which he raises while displaying. They are a large chicken-like bird that is found in prairies, as its common name suggests.

The Greater Prairie Chicken was once an abundant and dominant species across the windswept prairies. In the 1800’s there were millions of Prairie Chickens. Due to over hunting and habitat loss, this bird was nearly extinct by the 1930’s. In many parts of the country this bird is still considered endangered of extinction. It has been completely killed off in Canada and is listed as extirpated in Canada.

Currently there is an estimated 500,000 or so Prairie Chickens in the United States. However, the population is steadily decreasing. In many places such as Iowa, which historically had millions of Prairie Chickens, now has less than 100. Wisconsin has around 500 to 600 birds in a good year. Some years only 200 to 300 are counted in Wisconsin, while in Minnesota, around 5,000 chickens are reported. While that may seem like a lot in comparison, it is a tiny fraction of what was historically in the state.

As the sun slowly rose over the prairie the male Prairie Chickens flew and walked into the traditional dancing ground, called a lek which was right in front of me. The males would pair off and call loudly. Sparring matches break out as the males are working out the hierarchy of dominancy. They would display and dance about waiting for a female to show up. For the next couple hours I watched, studied and captured images of these amazing birds, wondering just how much longer these marvelous creatures will grace this planet. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels extensively to capture images and video of wildlife. He can be followed on www.instagram.com and www.facebook.com. He can be contacted via his website at www.naturesmart.com.

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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