When I stopped waking up early to go fishing, I assumed my days of losing sleep just to do something fun were over. That, however, changed last Saturday. After driving to Wisconsin Rapids Friday evening, four other guys and I spent a short night in a cheap motel only to climb out of bed at 4am. We had forty minutes to brush our teeth, put on several layers of warm outdoor clothing, and rendezvous at a roadside historical marker on the outskirts of town. There we met Peggy Farrell, an environmental education professor from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Peggy had us follow her in our car, as she led us along a series of progressively rougher and narrower roads until we parked alongside a pair of gravel ruts in the middle of a large fenced grassland. Once we’d all piled out of our vehicles, she walked us in the dark to a small blind and left us in the middle of the Buena Vista State Natural Area. 

Five guys crammed into a tiny plywood box designed for no more than four. I had not met two of the men before, but all were friends of Jack, the organizer of our trip. A row of small windows stretched across one side of the blind. The blind was four feet high and too low to stand up in. There were two three-foot long benches. I was the guy seated in the middle, so half of my butt was on one bench, the other half was on the other. Both benches wobbled on the uneven ground when anyone shifted, so I was often off kilter. Still the discomfort was more than worth it. We were there to see for ourselves the mating dance of the greater prairie chicken. 

Until Jack asked whether I wanted to go to central Wisconsin to watch dancing prairie chickens, I didn’t even know Wisconsin had any prairie chickens left. There certainly isn’t much prairie any more, and most of what we do have are demonstration plots too small to support prairie-dependent wildlife. When the Great Plains still extended east of the Mississippi River, the territory that eventually became the state of Wisconsin had bison, prairie dogs, and prairie chickens. I thought all three of these grassland animals had been extirpated by overhunting and habitat destruction. Now I know that 13,000 acres of grassland in the very center of the state is a protected prairie chicken management area.  

I won’t bother to describe the strutting of male prairie chickens during their mating ritual. Any reader can easily find an online video of the prancing birds, and as much as I value the written word, this is a case where a visual image is better than a description. I will limit this blog to my experience and not go into much detail about the unique actions of the birds.

To observe the chickens, we put ourselves in the blind well before dawn. While it was still totally dark, we heard the first drones of a few birds. Then we imagined we saw dark shadows moving about fifty feet in front of us. As the night sky slowly gave way to hints of daylight, the shadows took shape, and with the first real light of day, the birds started prancing and inflating their bright yellow-orange breast sacs. Only after all of the males had appeared and each had staked out its own little piece of turf did the females start to move in. The males exaggerated their efforts with the appearance of each new female. The females, on the other hand, seemed almost indifferent to the males’ frantic actions, although most hens eventually centered on one male, and the two would then wander off into the taller grass surrounding the stomped down lek. “Lek” is a generic term for the breeding grounds of any wild animal that congregates for mating. Prairie chicken leks are also called booming grounds, so named for the constant guttural humming made by the males as they try to call in their mates. In total, we saw 24 males on this particular booming ground, about half that many females. 

As remarkable as the sight was, the five of us had seen enough by about 8am. Our butts were sore, and our backs ached. I, although I may have been the only one, was also feeling claustrophobic. We, however, could not leave the blind, as a condition for its use is to stay hidden until the very last female has chosen a mate and moved out of sight. By 7:30am, only one hen was left on the booming grounds, but she was content to wander about for another hour as the few remaining males took their last shots at attracting her. In the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I wanted it to be over so I could step outside to pee.

Over the course of the winter I spent most of my waking hours in the house, so I sometimes struggled with topics for my blog. Finally I have something exciting to write about. Like the return of Canada geese to my local marsh and crocuses pushing through the last of the April snow, my return to nature is a sure sign of spring. 

Steven Simpson