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Washburn Outdoors: 'Daybreak dancers' a glimpse into Iowa's prairie heritage

Returning from a nearby corn stubble, a seemingly endless supply of ducks descended to the open creek. The stage was set. The signal was clear.

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I’m perched on the summit of an isolated prairie hilltop. It’s pitch dark, breezy and cold. The grass is covered with frost. If my timepiece is accurate, the long-anticipated sunrise won’t occur for another hour and 20 minutes. Inside my pop-up photo blind, I’m fighting the urge to doze off. I’m positioned at the edge of an active prairie chicken booming ground [more properly called a lek] hoping to catch a literal glimpse of Iowa’s prairie past.

Male greater prairie chickens have been booming here since mid-March, and I’m hoping to view the arrival of the morning’s first bird. Probably won’t happen, though. I never have succeeded in seeing the first chicken as it sailed in. It’s always been way too dark for a visual. Today will prove to be no exception; and I’m startled to the point of jumping when the high volume, maniacal cackling of a male ignites the atmosphere just three feet to my side. This is one wildlife performance that never waits for dawn.

Prairie chicken

Male greater prairie chickens dance and display their virility on an Iowa booming ground.

Before long, the first vague hint of light is appearing in the east. Three more males glide in, touch down and sound their cackling call. Two more arrive and I breathe a sigh of relief. The long drive, lack of sleep, “roller dog” supper, and truck stop coffee are quickly forgotten. One of the most unique and fascinating spring rituals the outdoors has to offer is about to begin.

Somewhere out front, the first chicken begins his dance atop the dimly lit grassland. In a cadence too rapid to follow, the bird begins to stomp its feet in blurring succession. The result is an audible tattoo that becomes an intense drum roll. The force of the action causes the chicken to spin like a feathered windup toy.

The best is yet to come. With feet still pounding, the bird bows and begins to pump air into its leathery, bright orange neck sacs. Once the neck is fully inflated, the prairie song begins. In all creation, it is a sound like no other. The polar opposite of the harsh cackling accompanying the bird’s arrival, the song is eerie, hollow, mournful and haunting. Once heard, the unique call will be forever etched in your memory. For days after, the sound will be mentally replayed time and again.

Photos: Washburn Outdoors in North Iowa

The chicken’s initial booming does not go unnoticed by other early arrivals. In a sudden display of jealous rage, a nearby male rushes the dancer. Beak to beak, toe to toe, the birds quickly square off. With hackles raised, the challenge begins. Neither bird will give an inch. Within seconds the cackling resumes as the confrontation escalates. Resembling a pair of barnyard roosters, both males begin leaping into the air; each assaulting its opponent with beak, wing and claw.

There’s good reason for all the aggression. For greater prairie chickens, spring booming is the essence of species survival. Although all adult males will boom and dance, only the most dominate birds are allowed to occupy the lek’s center stage. This is where the females will eventually come to be courted. Individual hens may only visit the lek one time during an entire breeding season. Competition among males is fierce.

But although daylight is coming rapidly now, the first female has yet to show. When the sun finally pops above the horizon, the boomers display with increasing vigor. Here, amidst the seeming chaos of cackling, booming, sparing, and retreating; the daily pecking order is reestablished. Dominant males to the center. Younger, more inexperienced birds to the perimeter.

By now, the lek has become an amplified cauldron of sound and activity as each bird does his best to out compete rivals. On a crisp spring morning, the collective booming can be heard for more than a mile. One can only imagine the unfathomable wall of sound that once greeted the dawn as tens of thousands of greater prairie chickens boomed and danced across Iowa’s pre-settlement prairie landscape.

Suddenly it happens. Quietly and without fanfare, a lone female appears on the hilltop’s rim. As the males acknowledge her presence, the booming escalates to near hysteria. The hen pauses to nonchalantly survey her suitors. Satisfied that she has become the absolute center of attention, the bird gracefully strides toward the center of the lek.

 

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Reach Washburn’s Outdoor Journal at iawildlife.org/blog.

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