By no means is it time to quit birdwatching! As the sandhills depart, the region's next avian show – the display of the greater prairie chickens -- reaches its peak.
Beginning in March, the males begin to display on their leks, or dancing grounds. Setting up individual territories, males raise their ear tufts, inflate orange air sacs and stutter-step, all while emitting a sound likened to blowing crossways on top of a soda bottle. (This behavior is known as booming.) When the females arrive, feathers can fly as the males battle one another where territories overlap.
At one time, greater prairie chickens inhabited tallgrass and mixedgrass prairie by the millions. The conversion from prairie to agriculture drastically shrank their habitat and numbers. Missouri, once nearly covered in tallgrass prairie, is now home to just 500 birds. In Illinois, prairie chicken numbers were so low that birds were brought in from other states to supplement the population and expand the gene pool.
Tallgrass and mixedgrass prairies in south-central Nebraska are a mere fraction of their former size, and prairie chickens are now found locally only in scattered locations. Fortunately, in the Sandhills region they remain relatively numerous. Here, while the chickens boom in the morning, we can view stars by the thousands at night.
So this weekend, the nature center is leading the “Chicken and Stars” Tour to Mullen, NE. Friday night we'll stargaze near Seneca before Mitch at Sandhills Motel takes us to his viewing blinds early Saturday morning.
I've only seen and heard the chickens from a distance. I can't wait to see them just a few yards from me. And the weather forecast this weekend looks very promising. If it goes well, we'll do this again next year. Wish us luck!