Birds – Prairie Chicken

(Tympanuchus americanus)

Called also: PINNATED GROUSE; PRAIRIE HEN Length—About 16 to 18 inches.

Male and Female—Upper parts brown, barred with black, chest-nut, ochre, and whitish, the latter chiefly on wings; sides of the neck tufted with ten or more narrow, stiff feathers, rounded at end, which may be erected like conventional Cupid’s wings above the head. Their color black, with buff centres, frequently chestnut on inner webs; bare, yellow, loose skin below these feathers may be inflated at will; the dusky, brown, white tipped tail rounded, the inner feathers somewhat mottled with buff; chin and throat buff; breast and underneath whitish, evenly barred with black. Head slightly crested; legs scantily feathered in front only. Fe-male smaller, the neck tufts much restricted, no inflated sacs below them; the tail feathers with numerous distinct buff bars.

Range-” Prairies of the Mississippi Valley; south to Louisiana and Texas; east to Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Ontario; west through eastern portions of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and the Indian Territory; north to Manitoba; general tendency to extension of range westward and contraction eastward; migration north and south in Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri.”—A. O. U.

Season—Permanent resident; only locally a migrant at northern limit of range.

Westward the prairie chicken, like the course of empire, takes its way; for although it may increase at the pioneer stage of civilization, it halts at the introduction of the steam plough and railroad, to disappear forever where villages run together into cities. Doubtless its range was once far east—just how far is not certain,

since the early writers confused it with the heath hen, once enormously abundant, but now confined to Martha’s Vineyard, where in 1890 there were about one hundred of the birds left, and now, for the want of sufficient protection, even this pitiful remnant has diminished to very near the extinction point. So it will be inevitably with the prairie chicken. Modern farming machines destroy thousands of eggs and young annually as they steam over the prairies; in the small, new settlements there is little respect paid to game laws when a dull monotony of salt pork sets up a craving for fresh meat; and since the prairie chicken has strong preferences for certain habitats, and will not or cannot live in others, evidently the day is not far distant when either missionary effort on behalf of this and many other birds must be vigorously applied, or they will certainly perish from the face of the earth. Since the coyote, or prairie wolf, which has preyed on this grouse, is being killed off, and sportsmen are endeavoring to enforce the law against trapping the birds in winter, and to induce farmers to burn off their fields in autumn instead of in May, there is still hope that its extinction may be at least postponed.

Early in the morning in spring the booming of males assembled on the ” scratching ground “-some slight elevation of the prairie—summons the hens from that territory to witness their extraordinary performances until the whole region reechoes with the soft though powerful sound, like deep tones from a church organ—harmonious, penetrating, more impressive to the human listener than to the apparently indifferent females. Inflating the loose yellow sacs on the sides of their head, that stand out like two oranges; erecting and throwing forward their Cupid-like feathers at the back of the neck; ruffling the plumage until it stands out straight; drooping the wings and spreading the erect tails, the males present an imposing picture of pompous display and magnificence that melts not the flinty hearts of the coquetting spectators. Now the proud cock, incited to nobler deeds by the indifference of his chosen sweetheart, rushes madly forward, letting the air out of his cheek sacs as he goes, to produce the booming noise, repeating the rush toward her and the boom until she gives some sign that his mad endeavors to win her awaken some response in her cold little heart. Toward the end of court-ship she moves about quickly among the performers, then stands perfectly still for a time, evidently taking note of the fine points of the numerous lovers that embarrass her choice. Shortly after the sun rises, the circus and concert end for the day, to be repeated the next morning, and the next, for a week or longer, at the end of which time the inflamed cocks usually fall to fighting, clawing at each other as they leap into the air and scatter blood and feathers. To the victor belongs the sweetheart. The note of the male bird is closely imitated by many farmers’ boys. It may be written, uck-ah-umb-boo-oo-oo-oo.

It must be owned these birds show no great intelligence in the selection of nesting sites, large numbers of homes placed in the short grass of dry localities being destroyed by prairie fires annually, others on cultivated lands are crushed by mowing machines, and those built along the marshes or sloughs are often inundated in a wet season. A slight excavation, sometimes thickly, but more often sparsely, lined with grasses and feathers plucked from the mother’s body, receives from ten to twenty eggs, ranging from cream to pale brown, regularly marked with fine red-dish brown dots, the coloring and spotting differing, however, on almost every egg in a clutch. It is the female that bears the entire burden of incubation, lasting from twenty-three days to four weeks. So perfectly does her plumage mimic her surroundings that one may almost step on a nest without seeing her. Like all her tribe, she is a model mother, she alone caring for the downy chicks, leading them where grasshoppers and other insect fare abounds, and protecting them with courageous and artful tactics.

The young are marvelously cunning in hiding in the grass. Now they lie very close to a dog, and since their flesh is white and toothsome, whereas that of old birds is dark and less esteemed, they fill the game bags after the fifteenth of August. Toward the end of summer, when there is no nursery work left to do, the selfish father joins his family; other families join his, or pack, until in regions where the birds have not been persecuted several scores roam over the prairie together to feed in the grain fields and on small berries and seeds. Now the grouse become wilder, and, except when gorged to indolence, will fly a mile or more, perhaps, so that little sport can be had with them over dogs.

” The true manner of shooting prairie fowl,” says Mr. Charles E. Whitehead in “Sport with Rod and Gun,” “is to drive over the prairie in a light wagon, letting the dogs range far and wide on either side. . . . When one scents the birds he will come to a point suddenly . . . as if he saw a ghost. The wagon drives near him, the other dogs coming up and backing him. The sportsmen then alight and take their shots. Rarely the whole covey is flushed together, and frequently the old birds lie until the last, and while the sportsman is loading his gun will dash away uttering their quick-repeated cry of cluk-cluk-clukcluk, and looking back over their wings at the sportsman who marks them down half a mile away. As one goes to retrieve the dead bird, still another and another will rise, and it is only until one has been carefully over the field that he feels secure that all the birds are up.”

Unlike the rest of their kin, the prairie chickens can fly long distances, though not with such concentrated power as to pro-duce the thunder-like roar of the ruffed grouse, for example. Their flight may not be so swift, for it is accomplished with less flapping and more easy, graceful sailing. They migrate regularly, or, at least, the females do, leaving the hardier males to brave the intense cold at the northern limit of their range. In November and December flocks descend from northern Iowa and Minnesota to settle for the winter in southern Iowa and northern Missouri, the size of the south bound flocks being influenced by the severity of the cold, just as the return of the migrants in March and April depends upon the warmth of spring. Most of the pinnated grouse’s life is passed on the fertile open prairies, sleety storms, high winds, and deep snow alone driving a pack to shelter in timbered lands.