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15 Dancing Up a Prairie Sunrise The observation blind was not much bigger than a walk-in closet, with just enough room for four. We found it after stumbling overland in the blackness of a predawn April morning. Atop a hill amid nearly featureless high prairie, there was nothing but grass, a breeze, and the dark— no ranch house lights,no blinking oil field derricks,no microwave tower ’s monotonous flash.Then,out of all this inky space,came a low eerie sound as if prairie zephyrs were practicing ventriloquism. At times the strange crooning seemed like pigeons cooing. Yet the notes were more resonant, more liquid, more like the merging of tumbling water and rushing air. The courting song of the male greater prairie-chicken has been described by some as the sound made by blowing across the top of a bottle. Others say it’s more dovelike, but even the lamenting dirge of the mourning dove doesn’t contain the wind chamber–didgeridoo effect of these wild grouse. The call notes emanate from inflatable air sacs on the cocks’ necks and the results are low and soothing, like the murmuring of spring wind. The sound carries great distances across the prairie grasslands where cock birds court hens each spring. On this April morning, the pale glow of first light revealed that the choristers were already in place—maybe a dozen roosters, each strutting 16 Dancing Up a Prairie Sunrise and serenading while several hens strolled the closely cropped dance grounds, studying the masculine attributes of the suitors vying for their mating favors. The lek or booming ground used by greater prairie-chickens summons birds year after year, generation after generation. The spot is generally somewhat elevated with low, sparse ground cover, good both for prairie-chicken narcissism and for spotting potential predators planning to drop in unannounced. This lek was near the heart of the Nature Conservancy’s 39,000-plusacre Tallgrass Prairie Preserve north of Pawhuska a few miles south of the Kansas state line. The morning was somewhat cool and the chickens supercharged with breeding ardor. At times the cocks appeared possessed by some maniacal spirit as they stamped their feet with jackhammer speed, tail feathers erect and a pair of pinnate feathers sticking straight up above each ear like devilish horns. Cupped wings were spread just enough to ensure that the tips would drag the ground as they danced. The vocals, or booming, began when each male forced air out of his throat sac, then over his vocal cords with a noticeable forward-thrusting motion. The result was the otherworldly, sonorous cooing that reverberated over the grasslands like a feathered woodwind symphony. If a challenger invaded the invisible perimeter encircling a rival’s dance space,the two would face each other beak to beak.Next the birds sprang several feet into the air, flailing away at each other with wings and spurs like a pair of domestic fighting chickens. Each leap was accompanied by loud cackling, the sound wildly witchlike compared to the soothing predawn call notes of eastern meadowlarks and mourning doves, birds whose voices were rising in volume all around us with the increasing light. At times the cocks would even perform their drumming dance on the tin roof of the observation blind, as if pleased by the added resonance . Greater prairie-chickens, although wary of natural threats, show little fear of unnatural objects and have been known to display on the hoods of pickup trucks parked near their booming grounds. On this particular morning, very little occurred to detract from the chickens’ enthusiasm until, well after sunrise, a cruising northern harrier caused the birds to freeze in place. Just a moment before, the lek had been loud and boisterous. When the harrier came into sight, gliding silently just above the tips of the dried prairie grasses, the chickens 17 Dancing Up a Prairie Sunrise suddenly seemed to disappear as they huddled tightly against a brown meadow just beginning to show streaks of new green grass. Within seconds, the hawk drifted out of sight and courting activities slowly resumed. But by this time the air was warming, and it was apparent that the birds’ interest had waned. Within thirty minutes the last of the prairie-chickens had left the lek, flying back to the more mundane business of foraging and resting until more nuptial jousting summoned the following dawn. Then the audience would consist of a coyote with new pups to feed, alerted...


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MARC Record
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