Nebraska has a couple of unique game animals to offer hunters. Those animals are the prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse. The wide open expanse of tall grass prairie that Nebraska still offers in places is ideal habitat for these birds. Only a few states offer a hunting season for these birds and fewer still have a viable population. Nebraska is fortunate enough to have both.
Loss of habitat is the biggest single reason for the decline in these prairie species. These birds need contiguous wide open spaces. Habitat breakup due to farming and housing have been the biggest threats. Now add commercial developments, especially wind turbines, as a menace to prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse numbers.
To date, Oklahoma may have done more to study the relationship between prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse and wind turbines than any other state. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) report in 2015 indicated that bird populations had declined. The USFWS also believed that wind energy development was an increasing threat to native bird population.
“Studies indicated that the lesser prairie chickens in particular avoid any type of vertical structure,” said Russ Horton, Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Department research supervisor. “They’re a bird of the grasslands and typically, knowing our native grasslands, there’s not a whole lot that sticks up,” Horton said. “Anything taller than the grass triggers the bird’s innate fear of raptor perches.”
“Generally speaking, it’s habitat: habitat loss, habitat degradation. There used to be, at one point in time, just literally endless miles, miles, miles and miles of continuous good habitat, and in urban sprawls, you’ve seen roads, you’ve seen energy development, you’ve seen conversions to non-native crops,” Horton said.
I do know of one study in Nebraska that was conducted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources. There was some discussion on whether the low-frequency noise produced by wind turbines could interfere with the vocalizations of male prairie chickens in the spring and result in a lower mating success rate. Another part of the study found that hens tended to move further away from any wind turbine structure, but they also moved away from roads, including roads and trails on the land that support turbine or ranching operations. The study ended with no real conclusions – only that more study was needed. However, the researchers felt prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse could coexist with wind turbines. I think that assessment may be a little premature.
In some places that used to be native range, estimates show a 97 percent decline in prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse numbers. In many other former ranges, these birds are gone, probably never to return. Today, these birds currently occur in parts of only 10 states, but by far the largest populations occur in Nebraska and Kansas.
The prairie chicken once numbered about 3 million across an area that stretches through eastern New Mexico, eastern Colorado, western Kansas, western Nebraska, northwest Oklahoma and in parts of the Texas Panhandle and South Plains. Estimates show their population now at 30,000 to 40,000.
Prairie chicken habitats coincidently lie in areas with generally good wind resources. This is why wind generation companies are anxious to build new facilities in these locations. The power companies are being more careful about where they put wind farms, but the concern is not about the blades hitting flying birds, it’s about the size of the structures.
Prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse are small to medium size birds. They are categorized as short-flight birds and they rarely fly very high either. Wind turbine blades hitting the birds is not the problem. Biologists feel that these birds have an evolutionary aversion to tall structures near their breeding and nesting grounds because predatory birds like to perch in high places and search for food.
Prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse may be best known for their spring mating rituals, particularly the mating dance performed by the males. They display together in a common area, known as a lek. They raise ear-like feathers above their heads; inflate orange sacs on the sides of their throats (a very impressive display) and stutter-step around while making deep moaning sounds.
The diet of prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse consists of vegetation such as leafy forbs, buds and seeds but during warmer times of the year, they eat mainly insects, especially grasshoppers. Winter flocks feed during early morning and late evening, often eating grain crops, soybeans or winter wheat, then loafing or later roosting in grasslands. I always have good luck finding them around alfalfa fields.
The hunting season in Nebraska for these birds runs from Sept. 1 to Jan. 31. Prairie chickens and sharp-tailed are very fast flyers. They flush at long distances and their habitat is unlike that of other game birds, wide open spaces. You have to walk a lot more hunting grouse than you do with pheasant or quail. I bet the average hunter treks 5 to 6 miles on a grouse hunt.
If you want to hunt prairie chickens and grouse, you need to study the regulations. While the season for these birds is statewide, there are some restrictions if you are hunting east of Highway 81. You must have a permit for this area and only 400 of these permits are issued.
Far more hunting opportunities exist west of Highway 81. Sandhill and southwest portions of the state still offer good prairie chicken and grouse hunting. No special permit is required and there is no limit on the numbers of hunters.
If you are hunting prairie chicken or grouse this fall, good luck. And I hope you have a pair of light-weight boots that are well broken in and comfortable. You’ll need them.
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