By Sarah Fenske
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Danny Wicentowski
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
There are very few reasons any human being would want to be standing out on the Kansas prairie at five-thirty in the morning. Here's one, courtesy of Max Alleger:
"If I were getting lucky once a year, I'd come out, too."
Alleger isn't the one getting lucky here, though — at least not in that particular way. The lucky individuals are a handful of male prairie chickens — known as cocks — who should be sauntering across this patch of nowhere in about half an hour to pick up some prairie hens and hustle them into a nearby patch of tall grass for roughly four seconds of what passes for prairie-chicken conjugal bliss.
By the light of the headlamps of two pickup trucks, Alleger, Dennis Browning, John Murphy and Ryan Jones clumsily set up a pair of duck blinds twenty feet from where they have reason to believe the prairie-chicken bacchanal will transpire. The canvas flaps in the wind, and the men fumble for stakes to keep their blinds from blowing away.
Please don't get the wrong impression. These men aren't depraved voyeurs. They work for the Missouri Department of Conservation. They're here on state business, in the name of science and prairie preservation.
They're conservationist voyeurs.
And, if all goes according to plan, prairie-chicken rustlers.
Just beyond the headlamps' glare, a complicated maze constructed of chicken wire sprawls 100 feet along the grass. The four men spent two hours yesterday setting it up across the mating area, which is known as a lek or booming ground. This morning each prairie cock, acting on the biological imperative impulse in his grape-size brain, will waddle onto the lek with the hope of attracting a hen or two and announce his presence with the prairie chicken's distinctive mating call: the boom. Intent upon their quest, the birds will wander into the maze and, eventually, into one of the box traps the conservation men have cleverly concealed therein.
Later this afternoon the men hope to pack the captured prairie chickens in brightly colored carriers normally used for transporting guinea pigs and drive them back to Missouri. They'll release the cocks into Wah'Kon-Tah Prairie, a conservation area just outside El Dorado Springs, about a hundred miles southeast of Kansas City, and hope they'll get lucky again — and avoid prairie-chicken hazards like freezing to death or getting carried off by a hungry hawk.
Though it's tempting to imagine that this foursome is operating a covert prairie chicken-rustling ring, the men are here in the Kansas flint hills with permission from the ranchers who own this pastureland. Last week, after setting up a base of operations at a Best Western in Salina, a half-hour drive away, they scanned pastures from trucks and even a helicopter, searching for nesting prairie hens or, at the very least, prairie chicken feathers and prairie-chicken shit — any signs of prairie-chicken gathering spots.
By six o'clock the chicken hunters have crawled inside their duck blinds. It's still full dark, apart from the stars above and a few twinkling lights from Minneapolis, the nearest town.
"I like it here, because cows outnumber people," says Alleger, a hearty, good-natured man of 45 who has been the state's Prairie Chicken Recovery leader since the project's inception five years ago. Every year he canvasses the department for volunteers to help with prairie-chicken capture, and every year he winds up with a waiting list. Like most who find their way into the Department of Conservation, Alleger grew up in the country, hunting and fishing. For a while he worked on the family farm in southwest Missouri, but farming didn't generate enough income so he had to, as he puts it, "fall back on my college education." He has been at the department for the past fifteen years, working on grasslands and prairies.
"I push a lot of paper," he says, summarizing the collective feelings of his conservation compadres. "I drive a lot of miles. I talk to a lot of groups. It's nice to get back into the field."
He'll be out here for the next three weeks: one week to catch cocks, a second to snare hens and a week in between to scout out more leks. Elsewhere, out on the prairie, seventeen other Missouri conservation workers at five other sites are doing the same thing. Over the course of their time here, they plan to visit 32 different booming grounds. When all is said and done, they will have captured 26 cocks and 52 hens. In doing so they will become increasingly sleep-deprived and, on occasion, hysterical.
Once upon a time, a third of Missouri (including what is now St. Louis) was prairie: endless grassland — and a rich ecosystem that encompassed more than 200 different plant and animal species. The roots of the grass and sparse trees extended deep into the earth, beneath a thick layer of sod that protected some of the richest soil in the world and kept it from blowing away or eroding into the Mississippi River. And when the prairie was thriving, it was home to hundreds of thousands of prairie chickens, more than anyone could even attempt to tally.
The prairie has dwindled to 3 percent of Missouri's land, most of it privately owned. There are just 500 prairie chickens in the entire state. Alleger and the Department of Conservation will stop importing the prairie chickens from Kansas next year, but they hope that within ten years the population will grow to 3,000 birds.
Regardless, the prairie chicken's glory days are already over, including the prominent place it once occupied on America's dinner tables and in its cookbooks, an era that is, for the most part, long forgotten.
More than 150 years ago, Mark Twain, then known as Sam Clemens, had to get up before dawn to hunt prairie chickens, too. "I remember," he wrote in his Autobiography, "how we turned out, mornings, while it was still dark, to go on these expeditions, and how chilly and dismal it was, and how often I regretted that I was well enough to go."
But Twain's reward was greater than the warm glow of restoring a nearly lost habitat. He got to dress and cook and eat the prairie chicken. Many years later, traveling through Europe and dissatisfied with the local cuisine, he drew up a list of the American foods he missed the most. It was a lengthy list, comprising more than 75 items, and about two-thirds of the way down, right beneath "canvas-back-duck, from Baltimore," was "prairie-hens, from Illinois."
Prairie chickens became a staple on dinner (and breakfast) tables soon after white settlers arrived in the Midwest in the early 1800s, and they stayed that way through most of the nineteenth century. There were a lot of them, and they were easy to hunt. As Cathy Luchetti, a California-based food historian who specializes in the cuisine of the American frontier, observes, "Anything on the frontier became food.
"I would imagine the Native Americans ate it first," Luchetti continues. "They used the clay-jacket method, where you completely cover the chicken in clay and put it on a fire for a couple of hours. The clay would harden, and then they would crack it off, pluck the chicken and eat it. It was a very popular way of handling birds."
At the Cahokia Mounds, just across the river from St. Louis, archaeologists have found the remains of prairie chickens alongside the deer, bobcats and bald eagles that were presented as tributes to the most elite members of Cahokia society and consumed at harvest feasts every fall.
The settlers expanded on prairie-chicken preparation. They roasted the birds over open fires, baked them in ovens and boiled them into soup. (In Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie, prairie-chicken broth is instrumental in helping the Ingalls family to recover from malaria.) They ate them cold, on picnics. They dredged them in flour and fried them. Sometimes they minced the meat and served it on toast with butter and pepper.
"My favorite recipe comes from the 1880s," says Luchetti. "It begins, 'Soak grains of wheat in alcohol and scatter them where prairie chickens are in the habit of feeding.' I have no idea how that worked out as far as taste goes. But it was an easy method of catching birds."
Unlike other foods of the frontier, like buffalo, the prairie chicken caught on back East. The railroads brought insulated shipping barrels full of frozen birds to St. Louis and Chicago and New York. The bill of fare for an 1865 "complimentary dinner" at the Lindell Hotel in St. Louis in honor of General William T. Sherman included, among more than 30 dishes, "Silvet of Prairie Chicken, a la Perigeur," which apparently means it was served with a sauce made from red wine, Madeira and truffles. The prairie chicken had indeed moved far beyond its humble frontier roots. It eventually arrived in the kitchen of Delmonico's in New York, the most famous restaurant in nineteenth-century America.
"It reminds me today of venison," says Bruce Kraig, president of the Culinary Historians of Chicago. "You can get it in the countryside where there are hunters or at very high-end restaurants. Prairie chickens had the same function in the nineteenth century, and increasingly so: They became an even more high-end and prestigious food as they became more rare."
By 1900, Kraig says, the prairie chicken had largely disappeared from restaurant menus — and from the prairies. Thanks to the invention of the reaper and the steel plow, which could cut through sod, much of the prairie had been converted into farmland, leaving prairie chickens less room to roost. Hunters had further depleted their ranks — not just those who lived on the frontier, but also tourists from the east who found the birds an easy target (which presumably made them feel like successful hunters). One composed a prairie hunting song for the upper-crust New York outdoor magazine Spirit of the Times. It went, in part
When the mid-day sun, its course has run,
And evening gales are heard
'Midst the golden grain, we'll shoot again,
The whirring Prairie bird.
It took longer for the prairie chicken to disappear from cookbooks, but Luchetti can find no trace of them after 1920. The famous Depression-era Federal Writers' Project, which documented traditional American food, uncovered no prairie-chicken recipes.
Curiously, however, the most recent edition of Joy of Cooking, published in 2006, contains a recipe for roasted prairie chicken larded with salt pork and stuffed with apples, onions or celery. (Click here to view it.)
This comes courtesy of contributor Rebecca Gray, former food editor of Gray's Sporting Journal, expert on wild game and, incidentally, experienced prairie hunter.
"Historically, it's been one of the top birds to shoot and eat," Gray says. "Joy is supposed to be a comprehensive guide to American cooking, the history of our culinary life in the United States. The prairie chicken is a bird you can't get any other place besides the United States. In several editions of Joy, they only had game birds from Europe. How many people go to Europe to go bird hunting? In this edition we wanted to get back to our roots, to look at American cooking."
And how does it taste?
That depends whom you ask. Technically prairie chicken is a type of grouse, a game bird that lives, and is eaten, in subarctic climates across the Northern Hemisphere. It's all dark meat. (Charles Ranhofer, the legendary chef at Delmonico's, described it as "black," but Gray begs to differ, calling it "white," closer to a domestic chicken than to a woodcock.)
It's also very lean. Back in the day, "They were probably gamy, like duck, because they're smaller," offers Luchetti, who admits she has never eaten a prairie chicken. "And whenever there was an infestation of grasshoppers, which happened quite frequently, the prairie chickens would eat them and that would give them a certain flavor."
"It's like pheasant," says Gray, who has stumbled across prairie chickens while hunting pheasant and sharp-tailed grouse. "It has a real flavor. It's very delicate." (Gray says she has never killed a prairie chicken herself but has picked up breasts left behind by predatory falcons that prefer the eyes, guts and organs.)
Alleger takes a dimmer view, though he prefaces his remarks by noting that he's not a fan of dark meat in general. "It's not as dark as goose, and it tastes better than diving duck," he says, then adds, "You can make jerky out of it, and it tastes pretty good."
Eventually, though, he gives up. "I'll tell you the ideal way to fix a prairie chicken," he confides. "You put it breast-up on a cedar shingle. You spice it, and you smoke it.
"Then you throw out the meat and eat the shingle."
There's nothing too death-defying here," Alleger says, settling into his fold-up armchair in the duck blind and wiping his eyes. (He's a world-class allergy sufferer.) "The worst thing that happens this time of year is a sunburn. You could step into a jackrabbit hole in the summer. I could be like Marlin Perkins" — here he launches into an imitation of St. Louis' own dearly departed host of Wild Kingdom — "'I'll just hunker down in this duck blind with the women.'"
Outside the duck blind, it's finally light enough to make out patches of high grass and stubble. There's less vegetation here, on the Kansas prairie, than there is in Missouri — an advantage, Alleger says, for the prairie chicken. If you're a prairie chicken and you see a harrier looming on the horizon, you need to be able to run, not get tangled in tall grass.
Missouri is rainier than Kansas, too. Though prairie chickens aren't too bothered by cold weather — the entire population at Wah'Kon-Tah survived this past winter's blizzard by burrowing down into the 22 inches of snow — a rainstorm can do them in. "They can't thermo-regulate," Alleger explains. "They get wet, they die."
Not surprisingly, there's a high mortality rate among prairie chicks. Each hen lays fifteen to eighteen eggs at a time; of those, only six to eight will hatch chicks that will live to adulthood. Eggs get submerged in water, and the unhatched chicks freeze to death. Other species lay eggs in prairie-chicken nests, and when the strangers hatch, the prairie hen abandons her own eggs, whereupon they become food for mice or badgers. Hatchlings, and even adults, get carried off by bigger birds.
"The hawks go after the prairie chickens in the air," says Rebecca Gray. "It's quite dramatic. They grab them and bring them down and then kill them."
Only 50 percent of all prairie chickens live longer than two years.
"It's much better to be a hawk than a prairie chicken," Alleger sums up from his chair. "They're way at the bottom of the food chain."
As Alleger talks, the sky lightens. A thin band of clouds covers the sun, so there's no glorious prairie dawn, but now you can make out the various shades of grass: khaki and beige and nut brown.
Then you hear it: a thin, low piping noise that swells and then fades, like the sound you get when you blow across the top of a Coke bottle.
The prairie-chicken boom.
Alleger goes quiet, scarcely moving. There's a rustling in the grass, and the first prairie cock saunters toward the lek. He's small, only about fourteen inches tall, but he waddles purposefully, his head bobbling at the end of his long neck. A few birds skitter through the air after him, and within a few moments the lek is full of prairie cocks. They're all ready to mate, and they're booming for the hens to come out and play.
"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.
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.
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."
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?"