In the pre-dawn darkness, shadows scurry about and a mournful drone rises from the prairie.
As the sun rises, the drone is punctuated with staccato cackles and the sound of flapping wings as male prairie chickens fight for the attention of females. Two small wooden blinds on this lek, or booming ground, allow people to watch the annual spring spectacle.
“I've been in a blind more than 100 times, and you know what's amazing is it's still just as special as it was the first time,” said Brian Winter, president of the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society.
Winter managed this prairie over several decades as part of his job with The Nature Conservancy and recently retired. He lives just a short distance from this lek on the Bluestem Prairie.
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The greater prairie chicken can be called an indicator species, Winter said. If the birds are doing well, the prairie is healthy and also supporting dozens of other species.
For most of the year, the gray and black bird blends in with the grassland where it lives. The birds spend much of the winter burrowed deep under snow to stay warm.
But in the spring the male becomes a flamboyant ambassador for prairie conservation.
The booming ground
The courtship ritual takes place on the same small patch of prairie every year.
The booming ground is highly competitive. Males stake out their small piece of turf and defend it while trying to attract females.
“Prairie chickens have what are called pinnae, they look like rabbit ears. They're kind of dark-colored, long feathers that they raise above their head,” explained Winter. “They have orange air sacks on the side of their neck that they inflate. They drop their wings down and stiffen their tail, they stomp their feet and then they just run around in circles."
Watching this spectacle from a two-person blind has become a popular outdoor spring activity.
Reservations for the two blinds on the Bluestem Prairie 20 minutes east of Moorhead start a few weeks before the birds began dancing.
"The phone just absolutely blows up and literally within a few days those blinds, at least the blinds here on the Bluestem Prairie, are full," said Winter.
The booming ground can be active from late March to late May, but mid-April is typically peak time for breeding activity. Most of the prairie chickens in Minnesota are found in a narrow strip of land extending from Fergus Falls to Crookston.
The beach ridges left behind by glacial Lake Agassiz hold some of the few remaining pieces of native prairie in the state, and several thousand acres of restored grasslands and prairie.
Once massive flocks
Prairie chickens were once abundant in Minnesota. They followed the plow as agriculture moved across western Minnesota in the 1800s.
"People in western Minnesota, the Dakotas back in the late 1800s would eat prairie chickens, three meals a day," said Greg Hoch, prairie habitat supervisor for the Minnesota DNR and author of “Booming from the Mists of Nowhere: The Story of the Greater Prairie-Chicken.”
Prairie chicken populations in Minnesota peaked when the land was roughly a 50-50 mix of farmland and grassland, said Hoch.
He found stories from the late 1800s that told of massive flocks of prairie chickens flying past crews building railroads in western Minnesota.
"There were enough birds that the birds that would hit the telegraph wires and kill themselves and then obviously fall to the earth. The cooks for the railroad workers could go out and harvest gunny sacks of prairie chickens every evening," said Hoch.
Farm policy impact
The success of the prairie chicken has ebbed and flowed with U.S. farm bill conservation policy. The population boomed in the 1980s when the federal Conservation Reserve Program paid farmers to turn cropland into grassland.
When many of those grasslands later reverted to cropland the population fell, but it has been stable for the past decade. Males are counted on booming grounds each spring to help estimate the population, which ranges from 3,000 to 5,000 birds.
The population is strong enough that Minnesota has had a limited hunting season since 2003 after no hunting was allowed from 1943 through 2002.
Their fate is inextricably linked with the preservation of prairie grassland.
"They're not in danger of going extinct within the state any time soon,” said Hoch. “However, the population is getting small enough that it may start to become more and more fragmented. And there may eventually be some genetic consequences. We just don't know at this point in time."
Hoch is hopeful that increased interest among farmers in conservation practices to improve soil health will create more habitat for prairie chickens. They need a variety of habitats. They live in grasslands but feed on farm fields and grazed pasture lands. Young chicks rely on insects found on many species of grassland plants.
“They are insect vacuums. Think about it. You are a little prairie chicken chick that weighs essentially nothing in midsummer and you need to weigh two pounds by early fall,” said Hoch.
“That's a lot of growth and you're not going to get that from eating plants. You need a super high protein diet and protein to a prairie bird is insects.”
The Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society formed in 1973 as grasslands were disappearing from Minnesota at a rapid pace.
"Birds like the prairie chicken were simply not going to continue to exist on the landscape if we lost too much of our grasslands,” recalls Winter. “And so it became apparent that to try to ensure their survival, we were going to have to permanently protect large blocks of grassland habitat."
The society has tried to reintroduce prairie chickens in the Minnesota River Valley. But Winter said an intensive effort to establish a population there failed.
The group has had more success improving habitat for the birds in northwest Minnesota. With a boost from funding provided by the Outdoor Heritage Fund created by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. Winter said about 4,000 acres of grassland in prime prairie chicken range has been permanently protected in the past eight years.
Protecting strategically linked land can connect different populations of prairie chickens in northwestern Minnesota, helping to increase genetic diversity.
Habitat preservation needs to persist into the future, Winter said, to ensure "that generations from now this bird will still be here in northwest Minnesota and people can still go in a blind and enjoy watching these birds."
The Prairie Chicken Society holds its 50th annual meeting on April 22 in Rothsay, the small western Minnesota town that claims the world’s largest prairie chicken.