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Image of prairie chicken.

The Bird that Followed the Plow

Prairie chickens followed settlers across the Minnesota territory.
Their history in the state is a twisting tale—rapid expansion,
startling collapse, and perhaps revival today

by Greg Hoch

The bison is the iconic figure of American prairies. However, by the time the pioneers were breaking western Minnesota's prairie sod, bison were on their way to extirpation from the state. The loon is the icon of northern Minnesota, a symbol of our wild, forested lakes country. But the wildlife species most directly connected to our state's early history of sod breaking and forest clearing may be the greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido).

No one really knows for sure, but several authors estimate that the prairie chicken lived only in the far southeastern sliver of the Minnesota territory before the pioneers and settlers arrived. We generally think of the pioneers chasing out wildlife as they moved westward, "wild" life standing in contrast to and incompatible with mankind, civilization, farms, and towns. But in 1889 Theodore Roosevelt noted that prairie chickens followed the plow: "[Sharp-tails are] essentially a bird of the wilds, and it is a curious fact that it seems to retreat before civilization, continually moving west as the wheat fields advance, while its place is taken by the common form [prairie chicken], which seems to keep pace with settlement."

20th Century Boom and Bust

image of moose caller

The natural history timeline of this bird is quite amazing in its fluctuations. In the early 1800s, prairie chickens began to expand their range. By 1910 prairie chickens occupied almost the entire state. In 1925 Minnesota hunters harvested 421,000 prairie chickens. In 1942 Minnesota closed the season due to declining numbers. By the 1980s, only 1,600 prairie chickens remained in Minnesota. Today, wildlife managers estimate the state has at least 6,000 birds, enough for a modest hunting season.

Although we don't know exactly the presettlement distribution of this member of the grouse family, we have good records of prairie chickens near Fort Snelling in 1839. Prairie chickens were seen at St. Cloud in 1860. By 1879 they had reached the Moorhead area, and two years later they showed up in Hallock. Continuing to expand their range north and west, they reached Montana by 1900 and central Alberta by 1916. In 77 years, the birds had spread northwest 1,100 miles, or 12 miles per year, following the farmer, the plow, and the grain in the fields.

Follow the Ax. Prairie chickens also followed the ax, the stump, and the slash pile through the central part of the state, as pioneers turned forests into brushland. Prairie chickens were seen near Mille Lacs by 1885, Duluth in 1900, and the Iron Range in 1913. At the turn of the 20th century, the prairie chicken ranged across approximately 92 percent of Minnesota.

As their range expanded, so did their population density, often quickly. In 1887 a hunter on his way to North Dakota made the following observation near Fergus Falls: "Prairie chickens were seen, sometimes in large numbers, sailing away from the tracks as the train dashed by. Scores of them could have been shot from the train."

Other reports from across the Midwest talked about prairie chicken flocks darkening the sky or turning day into night—probably exaggeration—but the birds undoubtedly numbered in the millions. Their populations grew to the point that prairie chickens became pests in some places. A market hunter described this scene in Illinois: "It was no uncommon thing to see whole cornfields overrun and ruined by them in the [18]60s ? Prairie chickens sat down in the cornfield and ruined it much as the barbarians crowded around a fortified city for plunder."

The abundant prairie chickens were probably a vital part of the early Minnesota economy. Hundreds of eastern sportsmen visited Minnesota and other nearby states to hunt and run their dogs. The book Feathers from the Prairie: A Short History of Upland Game Birds, published by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, describes an early 20th-century hunting scene: "In the period of plenty it was a daily event throughout the hunting season to meet parties of hunters returning from the field with all available space in their double buggies or light wagons packed full of prairie chickens." In addition to shooting, farmers heavily trapped prairie chickens during the winter months to prevent crop damage the following growing season.

Standard Fare. Birds, both trapped and shot, became standard table fare for many families. Some isolated Midwestern families might not have survived the winters without prairie chicken dinners. Settlers in North Dakota from 1885 to 1894 reported that they "actually tired of eating prairie chicken."

Many settlers recalled that prairie chickens were so plentiful that just a few minutes of hunting each afternoon was enough to provide dinner. An Iowa hunter reported that "three men killed 410 prairie chickens in one hour in one 80 acre field." A hunter in northwestern Minnesota stated that extra birds were shipped to eastern markets, a welcome source of income during the lean winter months: "At the railway station were to be seen large heaps of hay-stuffed birds ready for shipment."

Prairie chickens even made it to the capitals of Europe. There were reports of over 14,000 prairie chickens for sale in the Paris markets in the late 1800s.

In the spring, eggs of prairie chickens provided another source of food and income for farm families. In 1922 an Iowa writer noted: "After the fires had passed over these tracts, eggs were gathered by the bushel." In Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold wrote: "Old-timers repeatedly described to me the great concentrations of prairie chicken nests which followed the prairie fires of pioneer days. Several said one could not walk across the unburned patches of grass without crushing chicken eggs at every step."

Sudden Disappearance. After a peak in population, though it's hard to assign an exact date, the prairie chicken began to decline. While it is easy to determine when a species first arrives in an area, it's much harder to trace its demise. Eventually people might notice that animals of a certain species aren't as common as they once were. Then they notice that they haven't seen one in a couple years. Then the creatures are gone.

With the collapse of the state's prairie chicken population, one might guess that they would contract their range to the southeast, where they were found originally. Instead, the prairie chicken took up a new range in a narrow belt along the beach ridges of Glacial Lake Agassiz in northwestern Minnesota. By the 1960s, Minnesota had prairie chickens only in this area and around Wadena, which had a small, isolated population. Today, the prairie chicken's narrow range stretches from Polk and Pennington counties south to Wilkin and Otter Tail counties.

Farmland Grass. How did prairie chickens stage a modest comeback? The answer is grass. Though prairie chickens need grass for nesting cover, they are not wilderness birds. Prairie chickens are birds of working agricultural landscapes. They do not need expanses of grasses stretching to the horizon. But they do need tracts of grass among fields of corn and soybeans and sunflowers and wheat.

Clay County is proof of this maxim. Since the 1980s, about 9 percent of the land has been enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program and similar grassland-promoting programs. With this increased habitat, the local population of male prairie chickens has soared from about 200 birds to 1,328 in 25 years—a 650 percent boost.

The prairie chicken's rebound thankfully proves false a prediction made by zoologist William Hornaday in 1904. "It is useless to describe this species," he wrote. "The chances are no reader of this book will ever see one outside of a museum." In 1931 Aldo Leopold opened a chapter on prairie chickens in his Game Survey with a question: Is the Prairie Chicken "Hopeless?"

And yet, the prairie chicken survives. That doesn't mean we should rest easy, but we shouldn't give up hope. With sufficient care, greater prairie chickens—as well as other grassland birds such as ducks and bobolinks and meadowlarks and marbled godwits and upland sandpipers—will continue to grace Minnesota.

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