Missouri's reintroduction project depends less on importing birds (though that part is the most exciting) than on maintaining prairie habitat, without which the chickens cannot survive. The annual budget for prairie chicken recovery is $400,000; of that, $15,000 is reserved for acquisition and transport. The rest is used to restore the prairie.

From a distance — and, let's face it, even up-close — the prairie looks like empty grassland.

"It's an acquired taste," Alleger, a self-described "prairie-o-phile," admits. "You have to get out and walk around. It's a more complicated place than you might guess."

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.

But the prairie has been changing. The landscape has become choked with non-native grasses, like fescue and Kentucky bluegrass, and woody plants that prevent prairie chickens from roaming free — and more to the point, that leach nutrients from the soil. The roots of the foreign species don't grow as deep as what they've pushed out, so topsoil blows away. Some of it lands in nearby rivers and streams and fills them with sediment and mud, rendering the water undrinkable.

By the time the consequences became clear, most of what constituted the prairie had been taken over by agricultural operations, and very little public land remained. Moreover, restoring a prairie requires more than scattering grass seed across open fields.

"It's not like a redwood forest, where you just plant trees and let 'em grow," Alleger says, explaining that maintaining a prairie requires monitoring for invasive grasses and using controlled fires to get rid of the trees and keep the grass from growing too tall and thick.

Prairie chickens need a lot of space to wander. As it now stands, Missouri prairie chickens have tiny islands to settle on, surrounded by farmland, power lines and other signs of civilization (which frighten them). Ideally the conservation department wants to give each flock of chickens at least 4,000 acres on which to roam. There isn't enough public land for that, so the department is trying to enlist landowners willing to allow prairie chickens to roost in their pastures, as they do in Kansas.

The chickens themselves are a bellwether for the health of the prairie: If a prairie chicken can survive, the thinking goes, anything can. Consider too this far-from-altruistic fact: Underneath that healthy prairie, nourished by a complex network of roots, lies some of the richest soil in the world, soil that will be needed as farmland elsewhere starts to erode.

On the other hand, it may be that the conservationists have underestimated the acumen of the greater prairie chicken. A second flock has just arrived from the north, only to land just beyond the lek, outside of the maze and its traps.

"They're all thinking: 'What the hell just happened?'" Alleger conjectures, peering again through his field glasses. He's not worried, though. "They just need to get their confidence back. They have an overwhelming need to be at this spot."

Another flock of cocks alights on a knob a few hundred feet to the northeast. As Alleger holds his breath, waiting to see if they'll mosey over to the booming ground, a harrier swoops overhead and spooks the flock. An hour passes with no birds coming near the traps except a pair of shrikes and an eastern meadowlark. Just as the conservation men decide to pack their gear and head out for breakfast, a third flock wheels toward the lek, only to turn away at the last second.

"They saw something they didn't like," Jones suggests.

By now, nearly midday, the mating hour has passed. At a truck stop in Salina, Alleger and his team compare notes with groups who staked out other leks. No one had a successful morning. "We saw eighteen or twenty cocks, but no hens," Alleger reports. "They're not desperate enough yet."

The team will return to the same spot tomorrow morning and set up their blinds farther from the lek. In the meantime they'll spend this afternoon scouting for other booming grounds.

"Look at that prairie," Alleger says on the drive back to Salina, gesturing toward the expanse of rolling brown hills covered by a short fringe of golden grass.

"Look at that. Look at that! Isn't it gorgeous?"

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