Winter 2008

Field Notes

With their colorful mating rituals, prairie chickens have earned legions of fans, who flock the birds' "booming grounds" to watch them drum up some affection.


In terms of entertaining courtship rituals, few animals can hold a candle to Tympanus cupido pinnatus—the drummer of love, commonly known as the greater prairie chicken. Mating males put on a captivating display, inflating their vibrant orange throat sacs, drumming their feet and strutting about with pinnae standing up like feathery ears as they compete for the attention of hens.

Each spring, birdwatchers flock to the “booming grounds” where these birds drum, sing and fight for the chance to breed. Farmers are catching on, too: Some sell admission to spectators, who hide behind plywood blinds for hours watching the spectacular display.

But this show could have a limited run, says CALS wildlife ecologist David Drake, because the prairie chickens are in serious trouble. Once prevalent in every Wisconsin county, the quirky grassland bird has been on the state’s threatened species list since 1979. Due to fragmentation and degradation of its native habitat, its population has dwindled to an estimated 1,200 birds statewide. Now, many of those chickens live in four geographically separate state wildlife areas, preventing intermixing of populations and threatening genetic diversity.

To combat this looming genetic bottleneck, Drake, an assistant professor of forest and wildlife ecology, is working with researchers from UW–Milwaukee, UW–Stevens Point, and Wisconsin’s and Minnesota’s state natural resources divisions in an attempt to broaden the chickens’ gene pool. As part of a five-year project, the team is moving birds from Minnesota, where they are plentiful, to the Buena Vista Grasslands in Portage County, where the birds are collared and tracked using radio telemetry, allowing the researchers to monitor their breeding and nesting behaviors.

Two years into the project, 64 Minnesota hens have made Wisconsin home, and so far, Drake says the birds are adapting just fine. But he cautions that new blood alone won’t be enough to save these charismatic birds. To reverse their slide, the chickens ultimately need more habitat to establish new populations and intermingle with other birds, Drake says.

To that end, Drake and graduate student Ashley Steinke are launching a survey of farmers and private land owners to explore their willingness to convert parts of their lands to grassland. Drake says farmers can not only help create more habitat for the birds, but also can realize a new economic opportunity by cashing in on their popularity.

“They are one of the most charismatic birds you’ll ever see,” says Drake. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

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