Driftless Terroir: In Praise of the Mating Rituals of Prairie Chickens

By Erik Flesch

With spring approaching, we soon will see the return of seasonal festivals celebrating the native bounty of our nook of the Driftless Area. For me, this is a time of imagining not only what is familiar, but also what can be and should be to deepen our celebration of this singular place. And so I find myself longing for something that, unfortunately, we will not see in the Driftless anytime soon: a festival to a species of wild dancing bird with orange inflatable air sacs on the side of their throats that once strutted around our open grassland habitats each spring making deep hooting moans and displaying breeding feathers trying to attract a mate. In short, I long for the Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus).

They have a heavy fringe of orange feathers above their eyes and during courtship displays they raise the feathers on the side of their neck, exposing large orange sacs below, which they inflate to make a booming sound that attracts females. The last Prairie Chicken sighting in the Driftless was in 1941 and today its range is confined to central Wisconsin.

Although the prairie chicken was abundant through the 1850s in the ecological landscape of the Driftless that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources calls the Southwest Savanna, populations declined following widespread Euro-American settlement. Prairie chickens are picky about their habitat and do not adjust well to farms, roads or powerlines. The bird’s population dropped to very low levels by 1900 and the last sighting was in 1941. Today there are no Prairie Chickens found in the Southwest Savanna. Apparently, agriculture for a time benefitted the wild prairie chicken populations, but as it became more intensive and the prairies disappeared, the bird populations declined. Not only was the range of the prairie chicken forced north from down here, but as forests were cleared in the northern and central parts of Wisconsin, their range forced south; and so today prairie chickens are only found in the Central Sand Plains and Forest Transition ecological landscapes in central Wisconsin. 

And thus, Stevens Point is home to the Prairie Chicken Festival. Two hours north of Spring Green, prairie chickens have taken center stage each April for 15 years at the Central Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival. The mission of the event is to increase awareness of the threatened population of prairie chickens in Wisconsin by providing educational experiences for all ages. The festival typically includes events in and around Stevens Point, typically including a free museum admission, music, poetry, arts, crafts and food; but will be virtual this year.

Adult male Prairie Chickens, which once thrived in the Driftless Area, gather in communal leks to engage in competitive displays that attract females.

Greater Prairie Chickens are a chunky wild game bird with a small head, chubby body, short legs, and relatively short tail. At around 2 pounds in weight and 17 inches long, it is larger than a ruffed grouse and smaller than a ring-necked pheasant. It is considered a variety of wild grouse, and is well camouflaged with barred brown and white feathers. Adult males have a heavy fringe of orange feathers above their eyes and during courtship displays they raise the feathers on the side of their neck, exposing large orange sacs below, which they inflate to make a booming sound that attracts females to them — and gives these birds their nickname boomers. Simultaneously, they stick up their horn feathers, making a kind of assertive “don’t-you-want-me-baby” configuration. Adult females are a chicken-like grouse with a small head, a dark eyeline and pale throat. 

Males have a dramatically choreographed approach toward attracting mates. A bunch of males all gather together at prairie opening sites called leks — a Swedish word for a traditional place where males assemble during the mating season — and engage in competitive displays that attract females. Males stomp their feet and stutter-step, raise their tail feathers, and inflate the air sacs in their throats to make their deep booming. I wonder if young men of Native American communities like Sauk, Fox, Mesquaki and Ho Chunk might have modeled certain modes of dance or ceremonial dress after the stylish and dramatic staging of the prairie chicken. I have some ideas of my own.

The April 17 Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival, typically in Stevens Point, will be virtual this year. Find WIPrairieChickenFest on Facebook.

In some refuges in other parts of the country, the prairie chicken is considered a conservation success story. Historically abundant in Midwestern tallgrass prairies of Minnesota but nearly extinct by the 1930s, refuge staff and partners have seen prairie chickens return to restored prairie habitats. Today, you can go out to refuges and catch a glimpse for yourself through one of their public viewing blinds. Every spring, birders come out to witness their iconic courtship rituals, making advanced registration to reserve a blind.

According to the Wisconsin DNR website, the Greater Prairie Chicken is considered to be at fairly low risk of extinction or elimination due to an extensive range and/or many populations or occurrences; but the DNR has assigned the prairie chicken the conservation status rank S1B, which means its breeding is critically imperiled in Wisconsin due to a very restricted range, very few populations or occurrences, very steep declines, severe threats, or other factors. A layperson like myself wants to rush out and start raising prairie chickens to reintroduce them to the wild the way we did with wild turkey with such positive results. However, it may not be that easy.

Reintroduction efforts can be unsuccessful. Results of a recent land cover and grassland management study suggest different management efforts across a range of prairie chicken life-history stages and a variety of management practices are likely necessary to provide the varied high-quality habitat needed for greater prairie chickens. Brush and tree removal, grazing, hay cultivation, and prescribed fire may work in central Wisconsin, but trade-offs among life-history stages and the timing of management practices mean that there is not a one-size-fits all solution.

With time, study, resources, and popular support of Wisconsin’s Natural Heritage Inventory program, someday we may once again get to experience the iconic courtship rituals of the prairie chicken in our Driftless landscapes. Until then, we can keep a placeholder for them in our consciousness and factor in their orange and brown color palate, social swagger, sensual musicality, and love of heterogeneous habitats included in the algorithm for defining our place.

Erik Flesch is the director of The Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums in Platteville. His background is in architectural design and geology. He lives in Mineral Point with his wife, Sara, and can be reached at erik@driftlessterroirstudio.com.

Driftless Terroir (ter-WAHR) is a series featuring guest voices celebrating the intersection of land and culture — the essence of life in the Driftless Area — with topics including art and architecture, farming and gardening, cooking and eating, fermenting and drinking, and more. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, e-mail info@voiceoftherivervalley.com.