You may have done the chicken dance at a friend or relative’s wedding, but did you know that some chickens really do dance? The male greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido), which is actually a type of grouse, is an accomplished dancer and singer that gathers on a grass dance floor this time of year in a big gathering called a “lek.” The word lek comes from the Swedish word for “play,” but while a prairie chicken lek may look like play, it’s really more of a single’s bar.
Just before dawn, you find yourself sitting on a cushioned bench seat in a metal trailer in the middle of the prairie. You and a small group of maybe 20 others were driven here on a school bus from the nearby town of Wray, CO. As the sky slowly lightens, you begin to hear a strange 3-note hooting call. In prairie chicken parlance, this is called “booming,” and, it’s coming from several brown and white striped birds emerging from the tall grass at the edge of the flatter space in front of you. The booming is caused by a prairie chicken inflating two orange air sacs on the side of his neck. As he inflates the air sacs, he stomps the ground with his feet and two feathery patches on either side of his neck prick up like ears. These patches are called “pinnae.”
As you continue to watch, 2 of the males rush toward each other, cackling. One leaps into the air with a flash of wings and the duel quickly ends with one of the birds moving off to another area of the circle to find his own territory to display. A little later, the birds become even more animated, booming and cackling louder. A female prairie chicken, or hen, has arrived at the lek. Now several males dance past and in front of her, trying to interest her in mating. If she is interested, she may allow one of the males to mount her and breed, which takes only a few seconds. This mating will produce between 7 and 17 eggs, which hatch about a month later.
This lek tour is extremely important for the greater prairie chicken. In the 1930’s, the bird was driven almost to extinction primarily due to the conversion of its tall grass prairie habitat into farmland. While today its numbers have increased, many of the greater prairie chicken’s lek grounds, areas they return to year after year, are on private land. This is especially true here in Colorado where all greater prairie chicken leks are on private land. Therefore, tourism dollars gives ranchers and farmers a reason to preserve a portion of their land for the continuation of this fascinating species.
The greater prairie chicken breeding season is from late March through April so now is a prime opportunity to sign up for a tour to see them strut their stuff. There are several organizations that arrange greater prairie chicken tours, but probably one of the most well-known is coordinated by the Wray Chamber of Commerce. Tours in Wray are currently $100 and include a 2-hour prairie chicken viewing on land owned by the Kitzmiller Grazing Association followed by hot breakfast prepared at the association’s headquarters.
Seeing these birds dance is amazing and I urge you to consider a tour if you can. The sooner you sign up, the better since there are only a limited number of seats in the trailer and tours tend to fill up as the season goes on.