SciSun: Prairie Promenade   Leave a comment

Valentines Day, February 14th, a day set aside for love. Even grade-school children, who are more often revolted, rather than attracted, at the thought of romance exchange Valentines cards and candy (which might have more to do with the sales of cards and candy, rather than kids actually caring about who gets a valentine). The animal kingdom also has their share of sweethearts: Swans (genus Cygnus) are often portrayed as loving couples (although in reality they are usually even more fowl tempered than geese); the easily-recognized Love-Birds (genus Agapornis), small, brightly colored parrots, are very social and happy to be with any companion, bird and human alike; and even Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) seem to have an affinity for love. (You’d have to be a fan of ’70-s music to get that one). Stuffed bears are popular Valentines gifts, yet no one ever thinks of love-grizzlies. While mammals are the only animals that care for their children for years, or even decades (and that takes a lot of love!), most animals actually associated with romance are birds; and we have to say the most romantic animal (at least in name) might unexpectedly be the Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido). It’s the word cupido that revels the connection, as that is a variation of the Latin word Cupid, a minor Roman god considered the messenger of love. And somewhat true to form, Chickie here is very romantically inclined; at least, that is, as romantic as can be expected from a bird.

The Prairie Chicken is known for the curious behaviors it displays every Spring. Within a lek or booming ground, a type of chicken-gathering spot within open grassland, a group of a dozen or so birds flock together (better than the mall). While females watch, the males begin purposely stepping in small circles and arcs, sometimes stomping the ground and looking, almost, like they are concentrating on intricate dance steps, raising tall feathers on the sides of their heads while inflating showy orange-colored pockets along their throats and voicing a deep, hooting moan. While to us this might not seem like a very amusing performance, the chickens seem to enjoy it and after the males have completed their act, females choose which dancer they most liked and the two become a couple. In fact these chichi dances (a word, we think, not referring to the Chicken but rather meaning pretentious the the extreme), are unique to the three species of Prairie Chicken. We can’t say pounding the ground with your feet and while making hooting sounds is the best way to attract a mate, but it may be the origin of the phrase ‘the old stomping grounds’.

Believed to be a rather common grassland bird hundreds of years ago, in the 1800’s greater Prairie Chicken populations grew from their original mid-continent territory further north and west, as small farmers cut down forests, cleared land and diverted water sources for crops, creating a perfect Chicken habitat of flat fields with tall grasses and scattered croplands. Over time these small farms were overtaken by larger mass-production farming; cities (and suburbs) grew ever larger, leaving less and less open ground; increased use of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals affected environmental health; and un-regulated hunting combined to push the Chicken from a common species to, by the 1930’s, an animal nearly extinct. Of the three original species, the Heath hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido), formerly found in the eastern United States, was last seen in 1932 on Nantucket Island. Today there are an estimated 459,000 individual birds in two species living on small, managed and isolated parcels throughout the Midwest and parts of the South.

While this may not be the most romantic chapter to the story of what may be the most romantic of birds (don’t cue the ending theme ballad just yet!), it does show that with planning, understanding, and lots of work, species that were at the brink of extinction because of human actions, can be saved through human action. And that’s something to dance about. Just keep the low hooting to a minimum.


Michonne Says: With all that stomping and circle-running and noise-making and calling-attention-to-youself, it’s not surprising the Prairie Chickies got into trouble. It’s always better to be quiet and unseen, that way the wolves and hawks and men will leave you alone.

Posted February 14, 2015 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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