The greater prairie chicken is one of Missouri’s rarest birds. There are actually fewer than 300 left in the state. So the opportunity to see one is coveted by nature lovers. Even when it means getting up before dawn on a Saturday, and making the trip down to Wah’Kon Tah prairie, which many of the remaining chickens call home.
A group of about forty people did just that, turning up to the Missouri Department of Conservation’s El Dorado Springs office for one of a handful of greater prairie chicken viewings the department has organized this spring. After a brief orientation, the attendees hopped onto two buses, one lead by wildlife biologist Matt Hill and the other by Max Alleger, the department’s grassland coordinator.
After a short drive down a country road, the buses pulled over a couple of hundred yards away from a lek: an area of shorter grass the chickens use as a staging ground for their mating ritual. The bird-watchers lowered the windows, and took up positions along the bus, speaking quietly and using their assorted binoculars, cameras and spotting scopes, to scan for the elusive species. They spotted a handful of chickens.
"They have a very firm hierarchy," Alleger explained on the bus. "The most dominant birds are usually towards the center."
Seven prairie chickens, all male, made their way around the lek. Their bright orange air-sacs along their necks inflated and their long pinnae feathers stuck straight up. They stomped their feet, and ran at one another, with an occasional interruption.
On this given morning, there was a southerly wind carrying the chicken’s noises away from the bus, so it was hard to hear if they were making their distinctive booming noises, which the department captured on film in 1948.
Even then, the greater prairie chicken's numbers were declining. Since then, the chicken’s population continued to drop. For a close to a decade in the early 2000s, they disappeared entirely from Wah' Kon-Tah. The chickens that live on the prairie today were introduced from Kansas.
On the lek, a couple of elusive hens made a cameo appearance, but they didn’t stay for long. Still, the department plans to offer more opportunities to see them. "We’re going to do three of these this spring. And this is only the second year we’ve done this on the bus, just because these birds are setting themselves up so perfectly for it," Alleger explained.
After about an hour, the windows rolled up and the buses headed back to the conservation office, where some of the chicken-watchers stuck around to chat. Zoe Caywood, originally from Lamar, Missouri grew up with prairie chickens.
"As a child, we saw prairie chickens, we didn’t recognize them as that special," Caywood said. It had been almost 20 years since she had seen them.
"Oh it was great. Wonderful seeing those little birds. They’re so proud of themselves, trotting around and looking so good," Caywood said.
For Alleger, these viewings have an even greater significance.
"The fact that we’re able to share this with Missourians at all is a testament to the hard work that our staff do and the quality of habitat we’re able to maintain on the landscape," he said.
But the greater prairie chicken’s future is far from assured. The 3,000 acres of Wah-Kon Tah prairie might seem like a lot, but for prairie chickens it’s not. "We need to add more acres of better-managed grassland and that’s why we work with our farmer and rancher neighbors to try to improve more acres everywhere we can," Alleger explained.
Alleger's son, Ben, managed to take this video with a camera-phone, putting using a spotting scope as an impromptu zoom lens.