April 25th 2012, Prairie Sex

Somebody once wrote, that “the best aphrodisiac for men would be for the woman to just show up.” There is a lot of truth to that.  I once wrote an article in a newspaper (well the student newspaper in college), comparing the similarities of the mating behavior of humans to that of Barnacle geese, which was my junior year research project.  Both seemed to start with drinking behaviors before the dancing began. Today, I can firmly state that my opening quote statement of aphrodisiacs also applies to male prairie chickens.

Sex on the prairie, prairie chicken style, happens every year at highly selected regions called ‘leks.’  These spaces have been used for years, maybe even centuries as the breeding grounds for these plumb noisy grouse that unfortunately have become threatened over the recent years with extinction.

After a call to the ‘prairie chicken coordinator,’ yes, a woman has the job of being the prairie chicken coordinator. I booked a reservation for a viewing blind just north of Fergus Falls, Minnesota.  I figured it was an appropriate Earth Day activity to be celebrating prairie sex with the local population of prairie chickens.

Going to a prairie chicken lek is something everyone should do, well maybe not, but it is good for us to experience nature.  Like most things outdoors, you got to be their early, and the elements might get you.  The alarm painfully rang at 0245 in the morning and we fell out of bed to make the two hour drive to a small parking lot in the middle of nowhere.  The thermometer showed 37 degrees as we packed up our supplies for the morning and walked through rain soaked farmland following a string of reflector tipped poles for a mile to the back side of a marsh to where two small fish house sized blinds on wheels awaited us.  It was 0530 when we took our seats on the hard bench after putting together camera supplies, binoculars, food, and coffee for the wait for morning light.

I should have learned that if the prairie chicken coordinator says to wear rubber boots, I should not be one to disagree.  This person has nothing else to do, why would their advice be anything but the gospel?  I was reminded of my stubbornness to listen as I sat in the cold bird blind with wet feet.

At precisely fifteen minutes to six, a loud eerie sound filled the blind. It was almost like the sound of fifty fat former tuba playing German beer drinkers blowing over the tops of empty beer bottles.  My wife had a feeling of uncertainty as the sound grew until it felt like we were in the beer bottle.  We carefully opened the blind and she looked straight down thinking the orchestra emanated from right below us.  The ‘booming’ from the lek was twenty yards to our west and as the light of the day illuminated the scene, twenty six male prairie chickens were jockeying for position.  By the log in the blind, nearly sixty birds were present on the last day of March.  The noise then must have been incredible.

It seems girl chickens, we call them hens in the birding world, like sex in the style of a smorgasbord.  They sneak in, pick the center male more or less, or whatever they are looking for, stops and she goes low in the grass, and the chosen male mounts her from behind.  Now unfortunately, this male has spent hours dancing and pecking to get that position and now unable to defend his borders, his chums rush in and pounce on the nuptial couple.  Prairie sex is fast, quick, noisy, and chaotic.  Seconds later the hen flies off and shortly she lays her eggs and minds the next generation of prairie chickens by herself, leaving the clucking and beer bottle blowing guys to themselves (now that sounds a little humanlike as well).

There is an ebb and flow to the lek.  It is hard work keeping up the cacophony and at times two opposing males just sit and stare at each other silently.  It seems the boys know when the hens are around and they perk up, start stomping around, chattering and booming.  They flash their yellow throat patches and put up their pinnae, or specialized feathers used only for breeding displays.

It is hard to believe that these birds were once everywhere in the plains.  Unfortunately, my grandmother described it well:  they just tasted too good.  Through hunting and habitat loss their sounds have been heard less and less.  It seems they have programmed themselves to these breeding spots and if one is eliminated or the birds killed, they cannot be easily relocated or restarted.

Our adventure lasted until eight thirty when the birds had run out of gas and were scared away by a duck, apparently one that looked like a hawk to prairie chicken eyes.  Apparently, the birds realize that as my grandmother attests, they are plump and juicy and that hawks don’t respect the no hunting signs of the reserve.  The skittish bird is a booming bird tomorrow, the brave bird, dinner.  By that time anyway, my feet were transitioning from numb to that painful stage of frostbite and my backside was cramping something fierce.

“Was it fun?” I asked my wife as the engine of the Volvo warmed our feet.

“Well, I’m not sure I’d say it was fun, but it was interesting.”  She smiled.  It was a smile that meant this was a once in a lifetime adventure for her, and it had been a once in a life time experience for me prior to today.  Seeing prairie chickens mate and boom is not something to be done every year.  But just knowing that they are out there, propagating the cycle of life fills me with the energy to continue on.  I think that as goes the prairie chicken, so go I.  In ten years I want to revisit this place and make sure the cycle of life is still turning, and the spooky sounds of the morning prairie are still not just memories.  If they are gone, I cannot postulate anything but the same fate for man.  Today, I am just happy celebrating nature with my feathered friends but we’ll leave the prairie sex for the birds.

Happy Earth Day, my friends,

Olaf

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