The Greater Prairie Chicken
A Wisconsin Wildlife Success Story
In the April dawn, when the morning air is crisp and the sky turns a cool pink, open fields on Buena Vista Marsh come alive with wild voices. It is the annual mating ritual of the greater prairie chicken, an activity known as "booming." Watch a prairie chicken booming. This ceremony pits bird against bird as male chickens claim a territory to attract hens for mating. The performance gets its name from the distinctive sound made by the male chicken, a deep and resonant three-noted "whoo,whoo, whooooo" accompanied by whoops and cackles that signal territorial possession, in other words, "this place belongs to me." The loud booming call and fighting of the birds as they jump, flutter and square off against each other is enhanced by the sound of prairie chicken feet beating double time in a performance that inspired the species' scientific name, Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus, or "drummer of love."
Other names for this bird include pinneated grouse, prairie hen, and old yellowlegs. Greater prairie chickens are unique to the grasslands of North America and are found nowhere else. These birds were once abundant in the New World and widely hunted for food and sport. Farm activity and small settlements began to push westward into the prairies and plains of middle America which changed the grasslands. The birds benefited from the changes caused by logging and early farm practices, however, the amount of open grasslands they needed decreased. This and market hunting led to their decline. The decline in the number of these birds was noted in the 1850s and Wisconsin game laws were set to limit the open season for prairie chickens. Eventually, populations became too small for hunting as the prairie chicken range was narrowed to central Wisconsin.
Today, the prairie chicken's range is limited to a carefully managed area in central Wisconsin. The premier habitat to see them in is called Buena Vista Grasslands, an area totaling more than 11,000 acres. The goal of DNR wildlife biologists is to re-create an open grassland/sedge meadow community. With the help of the Society of Tympanuchus Cupido Pinnatus, Ltd., an organization founded solely for the purpose of protecting and preserving Wisconsin's prairie chickens, funds have been raised to purchase additional large tracts of land in this valuable habitat in central Wisconsin. Their efforts also assist in funding DNR management of this fragile ecosystem. Today, Wisconsin's prairie chicken management program is recognized throughout the United States as a successful model of habitat management.
Buena Vista Grasslands is open to the public and available for teachers and students to learn more about these birds. Each spring, observation blinds at Wisconsin's prairie chicken management sites are available for mature and hardy bird watchers to participate in research as they witness the booming ritual in the hours near dawn. April is the ideal time and reservations for small groups can be made through the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point by calling 1-877-269-6626 (toll-free) or 715-346-3259. Also, check out the unique roadside exhibit where you can hear the sweet sounds of grassland birds and the distinctive deep resonating "whooo" of the prairie chicken's call from a sound box at the display. It also includes many colorful photographs of area songbirds, the natural history of the prairie and prairie chicken, and the management of this unique ecosystem. Come visit and see a piece of Wisconsin's wildlife heritage. For information about other events in the area, check out the spring Central Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival (Leaves EEK!)