Wednesday, April 15, 2009

High Plains Prairie Chicken Festival

We're leaving Thursday for Milnesand, New Mexico, to participate in the High Plains Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival. They are not related to domestic chickens, but they are gallinaceous fowl, actually a kind of grouse. This photo of the Lesser Prairie Chicken is copyright by Alan Eckert Photography.

The three species of Prairie Chickens -- Greater, Attwater's and Lesser -- eat more grain than the grouse cousins, but are otherwise similar in lifestyle. Mating is different, though. Grouse cocks defend individual territories, but Prairie Chicken males court in groups. That's what we'll be going to New Mexico to see.

The mating areas are called leks. Alice Hopf, in Chickens and Their Wild Relatives, describes the mating dance:

"Birds stand some ten yards apart and utter their crowing of booming sounds, which are part challenge to the other cocks and part call for the females. The whole ritual may seem hilarious to a human observer, but it is deadly serious to the birds. The act begins with the male doing a little dance, its feet striking the earth so fast that a rolling sound is produced. Then the cock inflates the big orange air sacs on either side of his neck. His tail is spread out and held straight up, his wings droop, and the feathersof his neck rise up. Looking quite ferocious for a chicken, he jerks out his booming calls, which are punctuated as the air sacs become deflated. As though excited by this effort, the cock then jumps into the air, whirls around and struts a defiance to his neighbors.

"When a female arrives at the display station, battle is joined by the males. They rush at each other, with necks extended and tails erect, and the amount of feathers left on the ground is evidence of the intensity of the battle. Eventually, each cock manages to corral a watching hen and lead her away from the arena, and mating and nesting begin."

Lesser Prairie Chickens are under consideration for lsiting as Endangered Species, due to fragmentation and loss of habitat.

The festival includes other bird watching and local environmental presentations. I'm eager to learn more.

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