BARTON COUNTY —While most people are still snug in their beds, prairie chickens are busy putting on a show that is critical to their survival. Each spring, just before dawn, male prairie chickens can be seen strutting around on communal mating grounds known as “leks,” where they fight, sing, and dance to win the affections of females. Only the most extravagant displays will do, and only the best males will get to mate.
Kansas prairies are the stronghold of both species of prairie chickens, the greater and the lesser. The greaters inhabit the tallgrass and mid-grass prairies of the Flinthills in east-central Kansas and the Smoky Hills of northcentral Kansas. Lesser prairie chickens inhabit the shortgrass prairies of southwest and west-central Kansas.
“On a still morning on the prairie, the greater prairie chicken’s song, called a boom, can be heard over a mile away,” said Kansas Wetlands Education Center (KWEC) manager Curtis Wolf. “It is one of the most comical and unique natural phenomenons people can watch.”
Male greater prairie chickens boom by expelling air from sacks on their throats called timpani. When inflated, the orange timpani are all part of the elaborate display that includes rapid foot stomping, booming, clucking and posturing. The dancing is periodically stopped when the birds rush to invisible boundary lines to defend their display territory against other dancing birds.
The KWEC at Cheyenne Bottoms, 10 miles northeast of Great Bend on K-156 Highway, invites you to come and witness this wonderful show during a greater prairie chicken lek tour. Tours are available to the public, age 12 and older, by reservation, April 1-30. The cost is $25 per person and reservations must be made at least two days in advance by calling the KWEC at (877) 243-9268. Tours are not available on all days and are limited to seven people, so interested parties are encouraged to inquire about availability.
Participants will meet and leave from the KWEC between 5:30-5:45 a.m., depending on the time of sunrise. Staff will drive participants to a local greater prairie chicken lek, where a trailer blind has been set up. From the blind, participants will be able to observe the prairie chickens on the lek, while a guide provides information about these interesting birds and their incredible spectacle. Participants should plan on being in the blind for at least three hours with no facilities.
For more information, or to schedule a tour, call the KWEC at (877) 243-9268.
For a list of other prairie chicken viewings offered throughout the state, visit www.naturalkansas.org/birding.htm.