FLINT HILLS – They gather on prairie ridges while most of us are still asleep, humming a haunting three-note song that carries for miles in the pre-dawn stillness. Orange air sacs rise and fall in their necks as male greater prairie chickens begin their ancient dance. They stomp, cackle and woo. The female prairie chickens seem unimpressed. But eventually, they acquiesce. Then it’s over, and the hens are off to lay the eggs that hold future generations. Those future generations are a question mark, though.
Once billed the “Prairie Chicken Capital of the World,” the Flint Hills now hold dwindling numbers of the birds. In three decades, the population has dropped almost 90 percent on the area’s eastern edge and 50 percent in the rest of the Flint Hills, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks studies show.
“Prairie chickens are right at the top of our list for species we’re concerned about,” said Ron Manes of the Nature Conservancy of Kansas. “They are an excellent indicator of the health of the prairie.”
If the prairie chickens are in trouble, other prairie birds also are in trouble, wildlife biologists say. The chickens’ decline can start a domino-like fall, cascading toward the eastern meadowlark, Henslow’s sparrows, grasshopper sparrows and others.
Prairie chickens require open prairie and tall grass to nest. Annual prairie burning, close grazing, invasive trees and the encroachment of civilization all are factors in their decline in the Flint Hills, biologists say.
As recently as 20 years ago, R.J. Robel and friends saw up to 200 prairie chickens at a time while hunting in Cowley County. Now they rarely see the birds.
Prairie chicken populations, he said, are literally going up in smoke.
“We have a lot of annual burning now and we don’t have any (nesting) cover,” said Robel, who has been abiologist and researcher for K-State for more than 40 years.
“It’s a sad situation.”
It seems strange that birds so good at survival could be struggling in the Flint Hills.
Greater prairie chickens can safely roost in snowdrifts on below-zero nights.
They can easily fly several miles to and from roosting areas to peck grain from harvested fields.
The two things they absolutely require are prairie and privacy. They are shy and won’t nest or come near man-made structures or trees.
Greater prairie chickens once enjoyed a range that extended from central Texas into Alberta and back to Ohio.
Only Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota have sizable populations now, said Bill Vodehnal, a Nebraska biologist and coordinator of the Prairie Grouse Plan for North America.
The birds thrive in some areas of north-central and northwestern Kansas, in the absence of widespread annual burning, invasive trees and development.
Prairie chickens still can be hunted in Kansas. But hunters once regularly shot 80,000 greater prairie chickens each year. In 2006 they shot only about 6,000 statewide.
Other states – Missouri, Oklahoma, Iowa and Illinois – struggle to sustain flocks. Missouri has imported birds from the Smoky Hills of Kansas to restock its flocks.
The nationwide decline came over the years as tallgrass prairie gave way to crops, houses, highways and forests.
All was great for the prairie chickens for decades in the Flint Hills, where too many rocks made farming too hard.
Then the burning began.
It’s common to see the prairie ablaze in late March as ranchers burn off last year’s grasses. Weeks later, the reborn pastures teem with cattle.
Kansas State University has recommended the annual burns since the mid-1960s, to increase cattle weight.
More recently the university has suggested double-stocking: placing twice as many head of cattle on land to graze the grasses to the nubs.
“By putting the stock on the grass then, you take advantage of when the plants are at the highest quality,” said Walter Fick, extension rangeland management specialist at K-State.
Burning ranchland annually means an extra 25 to 55 pounds for each animal, said Eureka rancher Wayne Bailey.
He has been burning each year for 40 years.
“The majority of ranchers have always burned,” Bailey said. “But it depends on the arrangement of grazing the pastures. A pasture can get grazed real hard on one end and not the other. A burn will even it up.”
Bailey said some pastures have clumps of grass that people don’t burn, and that’s not good for the cattle.
“Cows won’t eat it,” he said.
He doesn’t believe the burning harms prairie chickens.
“We’ve been doing this forever,” he said. “The prairie chickens haven’t laid their eggs yet. These burns are not going to kill any prairie chickens.”
But prairie chickens nest only in residual cover at least 18 to 20 inches tall, Robel said. At best, grass on burned acreage is only a few inches tall by nesting season.
Amid close-cropped burns that stretch for miles, prairie chickens find little cover for nesting.
Hens that do lay eggs often see them destroyed by predators that learn to look for tufts of cover amid blackened prairie, Robel said.
And there’s no shortage of such egg-eaters these days. A study at Fort Riley in the 1990s showed the populations of mammalian predators – including raccoons, skunks, possums, pack rats – are 10 times what they were in the 1970s.
Once hatched, prairie chicken chicks are extra-vulnerable as they forage for insects.
Some studies conducted by K-State show nest and chick survival rates currently to be below 20 percent in much of the Flint Hills, Robel said.
“You need about 60 percent for prairie chickens to sustain themselves,” he said.
Compounding the problem are thousands of acres of nesting areas annually lost to signs of civilization.
Recent K-State studies show most female prairie chickens refuse to nest near vertical structures – from a lone windmill to large wind farms – probably for fear they’ll attract avian predators.
Most won’t try to nest within about 400 yards of major power lines, within 850 yards of well-traveled roads or within a quarter-mile of a house.
“That means if you bought 40 acres and build a house in the middle of it, you’re essentially taking out a half -section (320 acres) of land,” Robel said.
Things like feedlots, oil wells, pump stations and corrals do the same.
Even trees affect nesting, said Jim Pitman, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks biologist.
Cedar trees encroaching on the prairie has been a leading culprit for sharp declines in chickens along the eastern edge of the Flint Hills.
Prairie chickens are “the poster child of grassland birds,” said Chuck Otte, K-State University research and extension agent for Geary County. “Yet I know there are some native Kansans who have never seen them.”
Those who have seen the prairie chicken mating spectacle say there is nothing like it.
It’s a wild bird mix of kung fu fighting, passion, otherworldly sounds, rhythm and, of course, drama with sex and violence.
“If I lived in Kansas all my life and have never seen the prairie chickens, I’d book into a blind and watch. It’s spectacular,” said Brett Sandercock, associate professor of wildlife ecology at Kansas State University.
At the same time the birds are declining in the Flint Hills, interest in watching them is rising among birders and other tourists.
“It’s like a whooping crane. The prairie chicken dance is not something you can see every day or everywhere,” said Cris Collier, executive director of the Great Bend Convention & Visitors Bureau. Ranchers can make extra money from tourists who want to view the birds, she said. “It can be as simple as putting a cattle trailer out in a pasture and placing chairs in it for a viewing blind.”
Marci Penner, a native Kansan and director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, which boosts rural communities, saw the chickens for the first time last week.
“Not knowing what to expect, you wake up early… ride in a cattle truck and walk into a blind,” Penner said. “You sit on chairs and at the proper time a window is raised and you hear this strange orchestra of prairie chickens…. They come out only a few hours and then disappear into this hidden world. It’s an honor to watch.”
Some biologists are searching for a balance between the chicken’s habitat and good pasture.
Sam Fuhlendorf, a fire ecology specialist and wildlife professor at Oklahoma State University, said his school has studies showing how a different regimen of burning leads to happy prairie chickens and happy ranchers.
Patch burning is a system that rotates burns on designated areas of grasslands each year.
“We expected (with patch burning) that it would help wildlife management but decrease livestock production,” Fuhlendorf said. “Actually, no decrease whatsoever. We have now done research on five different sites.”
On those sites, Fuhlendorf has found increases in wildlife from tiny insects to greater prairie chickens.
Several Flint Hills ranchers are trying patch burning.
Jane Koger, a rancher near Matfield Green, does patch burning.
She also attempts to leave some pastures with enough residual cover for prairie chicken nesting.
“I don’t look at owning a pasture, I look at owning a natural resource,” Koger said.
Rancher Steve Sundgren also tries to rotate his burning so there’s always room for prairie chickens on the Butler County ranch his family has owned for nearly a century.
Though he sees them almost every day, Sundgren likes to watch the prairie chickens dance.
“People who miss out on seeing this really don’t know what they’re missing out on,” he said.
By Michael Pierce and Beccy Tanner
20 April 2008
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