In the predawn darkness over the Konza Prairie, a faint, low booming sound gave hope that the male greater prairie chickens had arrived and were ready to mate.
On an early April morning and under a nearly full moon, a group of seven people had made their way to a blind that sat in the middle of the 8,600-acre prairie preserve several miles south of Manhattan in the heart of the Flint Hills. It wasn’t quite 6 a.m. as the group shuffled into the baseball-dugoutlike structure, which had wooden benches to sit on and rectangular slats to pull down to peer out onto the dark, empty prairie.
The blind provided a view to one of the few places in Kansas the public can watch the annual spring mating ritual of the greater prairie chicken.
Each year, the Konza Environmental Educational Program offers guided tours to the area where these birds mate, known as a booming grounds or leks. Most who pay the $25 for the tour are avid birders and nature-lovers, and some have come as far away as New York or Arkansas to watch.
“It’s very hard to find them. They are very secretive,” said Jill Haukos, an environmental educator at the Konza Prairie Biological Station, about the booming grounds. “There’s not a lot of public land where prairie chickens are going to be active.”
So as not to scare the birds, the onlookers had to be in the blind before daylight, which means meeting a tour guide at 5:30 a.m.
On the brisk spring day, the group that gathered had mainly driven from Topeka. As they sat in the blind and waited for the sunrise, their volunteer guide Jerry Freeze filled the quiet morning air with talk of prairie chickens.
At one time, the range of greater prairie chickens stretched from Canada to Texas. Today, the greatest populations are found in Kansas and Nebraska.
The greater prairie chicken was close to extinction in the 1930s. Since then, conservation efforts have worked to bring them back with populations nearing a half-million, Freeze said. Now there are enough birds in Kansas for a greater prairie chicken hunting season.
Prairie chickens are easily disturbed by human actions. So you won’t find their leks near roads, houses or, as one new study found, wind turbines. Instead, they prefer remote and quiet tallgrass prairie, which can be a rare find.
The leks are often located on elevated areas with short grasses, hilltops and ridges are common. Year after year beginning in late March and continuing into late April, the male birds will return to the same mating grounds.
“What attracts them? No one knows for sure,” Freeze said.
‘It’s so unique’
The lek being observed that day was part of the Konza Prairie, which is owned and preserved by the Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University. It’s used for long-term ecological research, education and prairie conservation.
Three of the men in the tour group were former co-workers and avid bird-watchers. They had come the year before to watch the boom and had just returned from a trip to Nebraska to watch Sandhill Cranes.
“How many times do you get a chance to see these birds? Not many people get to see them,” Jim Fregon said when asked why he returned for a second year. “The population is getting smaller and smaller.”
Fregon said that, similar to the call of the cranes, there’s no other sound quite like the low booming of a prairie chicken.
“It’s so unique,” he said.
Just as Fregon was finishing his thought, the “mmmmm booooom” of the male prairie chicken could be heard. It was like the low humming sound of a gnat caught in the ear.
All chatter stopped, and the booming sound grew louder. As the sun rose, several male birds were spotted 50 or so yards in front of the blind.
It was the males that the group had come to watch. Their bright orange heads seemed to explode as they filled sacs on the sides of their necks with air. Feathers stood tall in the back of the head and tail, as they began to bob their heads and stomp their feet. The booming sound rolled over the prairie.
Every so often, two males would square off, and in a sudden burst one of the birds would jump in the air, flapping its wings wildly as it charged its foe. Other times, one of the birds would resort to just chasing the other males off the lek.
All through this macho song and dance routine, the rather plain-looking hens stood back and watched.
“It’s very intricate, detailed behavior,” Haukos said. “And every move means something. It’s not just random.”
The males are vying for space. Males defend an area about 15 feet in diameter on the lek. The farther the competing male gets pushed off the lek, the more territory the dominant male gets, Haukos.
The hens will make several trips to different leks before choosing a mate. The one or two males that do the best job of defending their territory will do the majority of the mating.
‘It’s called foreplay’
When seen for the first few times, the booming brings about a chuckle, largely because the birds’ actions seem so familiar. The puffing of the throat, stomping of feet and quick burst of flapping wings are filled with the same tense drama as some of cinema’s most famous male showdowns.
The prairie chicken’s sparring never turned violent that morning. It was mostly just posturing.
“Once you understand the animal behavior, you see it in humans all the time — in the clothes you wear to the size of vehicle you drive,” Haukos said.
As the chickens boomed, the tour group peered out of the blind holding cameras and binoculars to their eyes. They watched for more than an hour. More than a dozen prairie chickens had been spotted, most of them male.
“I’m always amazed that they go through all this and the actual mating itself takes seconds,” one of the men in the blind commented.
“It’s called foreplay,” his buddy quipped.
Freeze said he’d never seen so many prairie chickens before. On some days, Freeze worries if any prairie chickens will show up at all. So far, he’s never been disappointed.
“They come out and do this every day. What else do they have to do?” he said.