May–June 2022

Dueling Chickens

Male prairie chickens get bold, bright, and loud in their springtime competition for mates.

Greg Hoch

The greater prairie chicken once occurred in amazing numbers across the prairies of Minnesota and the Midwest. In his book Game Management, Aldo Leopold reported that in the late 1880s people could not walk across the prairie “without crushing chicken eggs at every step.”

Less than 1 percent of the original tallgrass prairie remains. With the loss of so much habitat, prairie chicken numbers are only a small fraction of this historic abundance. Today, Minnesota’s prairie chickens are primarily found in a long, narrow north-south band along the eastern edge of the Red River Valley from the Crookston area south toward Fergus Falls.

Every spring, male prairie chickens gather in a showy competition for a mate (left). And every spring Minnesota Department of Natural Resources biologists and volunteers spend mornings counting chickens. As the prairie habitat supervisor for the DNR, I know that finding these birds is one of the best indicators of healthy grassland habitat.

Out on the Booming Ground. Each morning from mid-March to mid-May, male prairie chickens gather on leks (above). Lek is a general term for an area where males may gather and display themselves in the hopes that females will choose them for mating. A prairie chicken lek is also called a booming ground. The activities of the booming ground are an experience for the eyes and ears, both for visiting hens as well as people watching from a distance.

Often the first boom comes before first light, before we can see shape or motion. It’s such a low-frequency sound that it’s sometimes difficult to tell where it comes from. The sound can carry for up to two miles on a calm, cool morning. More than once when surveying prairie chickens in Clay and Becker counties, my four-legged field assistant and I have started walking, thinking the birds were just a hundred yards away. After a mile, we still hadn’t found them. 

At other booming grounds we surveyed, we know exactly where they are. Eyes strain as we repeatedly scan the area in the inky light of predawn until we see the first white rump feathers (right). They appear a ghostly gray against the dark background. Another pass through the area and we see a dozen birds. An area that looked empty seconds ago is suddenly alive with birds warming up for the morning’s performance.

Showing Off. As the morning brightens, the sunlight hits the blaze orange neck sacs and eye combs of the males (above left). Now there is something to both see and hear. The noise comes from the males inflating and deflating their large orange neck sacs, creating a deep, resonant booming sound like the big tympani drums in an orchestra.

Another name for the prairie chicken is pinnated grouse. The pinnae are the elongated neck feathers the birds erect over the back of their heads when displaying. Their scientific name is Tympanuchus cupido. Some early naturalists thought the pinnae feathers looked like Cupid’s feather, thus cupido.
Of course, all of this activity isn’t to impress other males, it’s to impress any hens in the area. Females visit the booming ground throughout the spring (above right). A hen can literally compare males side by side and choose a mate based on a given male’s “ornaments”—its loud booming and bright colors. These ornaments tell the female which male has the best genes to pass on to her offspring. 

Being bright and loud has the unintended consequence of attracting predators. Anyone who has spent mornings on the grouse lek has seen a falcon, fox, or other predator try to capture a bird. 

The rest of the year, the barred or striped pattern of a prairie chicken’s feathers allows the bird to blend perfectly into the grasses. 

In his book The Prairie and the Sea, William Quayle wrote that prairie chickens are the color of “sullen winter grass, dappled brown like a winter prairie field … an expert eye might forgive itself for not beholding it.”

“Fight” for Dominance. Early in the spring, or perhaps even the fall before, each male stakes out a territory on the booming ground. The dominant males are near the center of the booming ground. Males will usually return to the same ground year after year.
The males typically stay in the middle of their territories, a safe distance from their neighbor. They will twirl and dance and hold their wings and bodies in stylized postures. They will erect their tail feathers. They will try to boom and cackle louder than the other males. They want their neck sacs to be brighter than anyone else. All this effort is to intimidate the other males and impress the females.

Most displays that look like aggression are bluffs. Bluffing is much safer than fighting. There are several results of a fight. The male can win, lose, or be injured. It’s best to keep some distance (above). It is better, and safer, to look tough than to be tough.
That said, birds will sometimes attack each other. And when that happens, the feathers will fly.

One important feature of a booming ground is the low cover. There wouldn’t be any point in all these displays if the grass was so tall that the hens couldn’t see the males. Males choose areas with shorter grass where all their displays are easy to see, such as grazed or hayed areas, or soybean stubble. The key is to have taller nesting cover nearby for the hens to nest in. Like most wildlife, prairie chickens need several types of habitat over the seasons.

A Serious Dance. It’s not just bright neck sacs and booming. When hens visit, activity increases dramatically. Males boom even louder and cackle. They rush at each other or flutter up into the air.

Many observers have described the low booming as mournful or dirge-like. Ornithologist and author Paul Johnsgard has the most evocative description, writing that the sound had the “melancholic aspect of some lost soul seeking forgiveness.” To my ear, the closest sound to the booming of the prairie chicken is the coo of the mourning dove, but much louder and doubled over and over by all the other males.

However, with all the color and noise and activity, it always looks like a joyful pageant to me. It sometimes feels like the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony should be playing in the background.

Several Native American tribes have incorporated the movement, postures, and body language of prairie chickens into their own dances. These dancers capture the essence of the spring prairie chicken perfectly. The dancers clearly spend many mornings studying these birds and their every movement.

Of course, both of those are human interpretations of natural events. To the birds, this is a very serious competition to see who can pass their genes to the next generation.

The Prairie Community. Three other species of native grouse live in Minnesota, including the spruce grouse, the ruffed grouse, and the sharp-tailed grouse. While those first two species live primarily in the forest, sharp-tailed grouse live in grassland and brushland. Prairie chickens and sharp-tails occasionally visit each other’s leks and interbreed.

The resulting offspring is a prairie chicken/sharp-tail hybrid (upper left). The pinnae feathers on the neck are short, the neck sac is purplish, the chest feathers aren’t barred, and two feathers in the middle of the tail are a little longer and darker than the others. These are the feathers that give sharp-tails their name.

The result of all those hours of booming and fluttering is a nest full of 10 to 12 eggs (lower left) and the next generation of prairie chickens. After all the excitement of the spring booming ground, prairie chickens once again vanish into the grass as hens sit on nests and raise their broods.

As prairie chicken booming wraps up in May, the blooming begins on the prairie with the pasque flower.