"This is not a sharp, shrill cry, but a round, full, detonating cannon-like sound which may be heard at long distances," T.A. Behrman, an Iowan with 50 years of prairie chicken-hunting experience, writes in an 1893 article for Science. "It comprises three clear, distinct musical notes, corresponding with the 'do, si, do' of the diatonic scale." An accompanying illustration describes it in musical notation: A-G-A-A.

When multiple birds go at it, the prairie sounds like a concert hall where an orchestra's tuning up. The sun finally peeps out, turning the grass to gold, and you almost expect the booming to turn any minute into a prelude of something by Copland, something that evokes the grandeur and open space of the American frontier.

But because they are prairie chickens and not symphony musicians, the cocks commence to dance and spar, flying at each other feet-first and pulling back just at the point of contact. And then it becomes apparent why the prairie chicken had such a pervasive hold on the public imagination, why so many Native American tribes have ceremonial prairie-chicken dances (click here and here to watch), why one nineteenth-century Illinois newspaper went so far as to name itself the Prairie-Chicken and why Alleger and his colleagues at the conservation department fully intend to get up at four-thirty every morning for two weeks straight in order to capture them and bring them back to repopulate Missouri.

For more photos, visit our slideshow Prairie Chickens Like to Cluck.
Earl Richardson
For more photos, visit our slideshow Prairie Chickens Like to Cluck.
Box traps are built into a chicken-wire maze. For more photos, visit our slideshow Prairie Chickens Like to Cluck.
Earl Richardson
Box traps are built into a chicken-wire maze. For more photos, visit our slideshow Prairie Chickens Like to Cluck.

Behold the prairie chicken, a charismatic little bird, far more so than a small-brained, one-and-a-half-pound, nearly extinct game fowl has a right to be.

There's that walk, somewhere between a waddle and a strut. When a prairie chicken stands fully upright, its long neck and thick black comb impart a Roadrunner-like aspect. Thin bands of dark brown and white feathers cover its entire body from the head down to the toes, popping up into a fan at the rear end, like a turkey's but smaller. In mating season — right now — bright orange sacs puff out at the male's throat and above his shiny black eyes; air trapped inside creates the booming noise.

This is the greater prairie chicken. It lives in the Upper Midwest, ranging as far north as Canada. There's also the lesser prairie chicken, which lives primarily in Oklahoma and Texas, and the Attwater's prairie chicken, which you might encounter along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana. They used to have a cousin, the heath hen, on the East Coast, but that bird has been extinct since 1932.

Hens, evidently, aren't as easy to impress as humans. It will be a few more days before the booming will woo them from their winter nesting grounds farther out in the countryside onto the lek for their four seconds of bliss.

Alleger watches the proceedings on the booming ground through a pair of binoculars. Suddenly there's a flurry of movement — not from the cocks, but from the men. Two traps have sprung. As the humans jump over the chicken-wire maze, there's a whir of feathers, and the rest of the prairie chickens fly away.

"They'll be back," Alleger says confidently as Dennis Browning reaches into a trap, pulls out a chicken and wraps his hands around the bird's striped body. Up close, unable to strut, the cock looks small and helpless. It strains its neck and kicks its feet in an attempt to escape and hisses like an angry cat. "It's a vicious little animal," Browning comments. Past expeditions have taught him that a prairie chicken won't stop kicking and hissing until it's released back into the wild.

Normally Browning would have stuffed the cock into a carrier and taken it to the Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure Zoo in Salina for a checkup before the four-hour drive to Wah'Kon-Tah, but Alleger has decided that today's too warm for prairie-chicken transport. The temperature's already above 60 and heading north toward a daytime high of 80, and in the back of a pickup truck the ventilation's not so great; the chickens might die in transit.

Instead, Ryan Jones approaches with a metal tag and a pair of pliers. With surgical precision, he wraps the tag around one of the bird's legs and clamps it tight. Browning opens his hands, and the cock flies clumsily away.

It has been illegal to hunt prairie chickens in Missouri since 1907, when they became a protected species — the state's first. Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Oklahoma permit hunting, with a quota of two or three birds per day. In Minnesota permits are distributed via lottery. As with most other wildfowl, hunting season is in the fall, and the sale of game for profit is prohibited.

"I'll fight with my dying breath to save the last prairie chicken in Missouri," says Alleger, settling back into the duck blind to await another flock of cocks, "but if the numbers are stable, I wouldn't have any trouble hunting one. A lot of us in conservation are hunters. We focus more on the population: If the population is healthy, hunting is a way to participate in the cycle of nature."

Every year for the past four years, Alleger's team has transported about 60 birds to Missouri. Before a chicken is released back into the wild, the conservationists attach a tiny radio transmitter to its leg, which they'll use to track its movements. Of those reintroduced birds, less than 60 still remain in Wah'Kon-Tah. Some have joined existing flocks and migrated elsewhere, though prairie chickens are not known for being transient. They don't even fly south for the winter. Most spend their lives within ten square miles of where they hatched.

« Previous Page
Next Page »