Greater Prairie Chicken by Jackie Bowman
Greater prairie chickens still pecking in southern Illinois

(published 4-30-12)

As birders, we are spoiled by an abundance of outstanding local venues to enjoy our craft. There is probably a birding “hot spot” within five or 10 miles of your home.

Birdwatching at the nearest forest preserve or just the backyard is enough for some people, and there’s nothing wrong with staying close to home. It’s certainly a “green” thing to do. But birders who enjoy an occasional road trip have some exciting choices here in the Midwest.
Places I consistently recommend include Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Joliet; Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin; and Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana. Each offers a rewarding birding experience that’s well worth the drive.

If you have more time, visit north-central Michigan to see the rare Kirtland’s warbler. Magee Marsh and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Ohio also qualify for the Midwest birder’s bucket list.

Of course, there are many more destinations to tempt birders with surplus gas money. Personally, I always wanted to go see the greater prairie chickens in southern Illinois. My hankering grew stronger in 2008 after reading in Audubon magazine about the chickens of Prairie Ridge State Natural Area in Newton.

Newton, as you surely know, is about 20 miles southeast of Effingham. In other words, “way down there” and not really on the way to anything except Olney, a town famous for its white squirrels.

The remoteness of Prairie Ridge, and maybe the fact that I’d seen greater prairie chickens once before, in Nebraska, was holding me back. I needed a push. It came in the form of an email from Ron Skleney, a naturalist at Willowbrook Wildlife Center and a fellow DuPage Birding Club member. Ron, his wife, his boss and another friend were heading down to see the chickens in late March. There was an extra spot in the viewing blind—would I like to come along?

Well, let me think, do robins eat worms? Do mourning doves sit on wires? Yes, of course I’ll go!

A trip to see the prairie chickens requires an overnight stay. It’s best to arrive in Newton the night before and find a bed as close to Prairie Ridge as you can. Our party of five settled into the River Park Motel, where a single goes for $35 and includes a view of the Burl Ives Bridge.

Proximity to Prairie Ridge was the motel’s best feature. We needed to be at the preserve, about three miles away, well before sunrise. Under the cover of darkness we would be loaded into one of the wooden blinds that overlook the prairie chickens’ courtship grounds or “lek.”

Waking at 4:30 a.m. is easy for most birders, including me. The more difficult test is getting up and not drinking coffee. A chicken birder doesn’t dare indulge in a cup of joe because the viewing blind is your home for up to three hours. A home with no bathroom.

We arrived at Prairie Ridge just after five, and following a short orientation by site manager Scott Simpson we took our positions in the blind. There were three blinds in all, with a total capacity of 15 birders. On this day only one seat went unclaimed.

Now it was time to wait. We sat on a cushioned bench, peering through a horizontal slot into the farm country blackness. It was a surreal way to experience daybreak.

At 6:00 a.m. the silence was broken by the “booming” of greater prairie chickens. The birds were announcing their entry onto the lek with a sound similar to blowing over the mouth of an empty soda bottle.

As the light improved, more birds appeared on the grassy stage. The booming grew louder, juxtaposed with singing Eastern meadowlarks. For the next two hours we watched a remarkable courtship display that really must be seen to be appreciated. The male chickens inflated their orange air sacs and erected their black neck feathers as they sparred, trying their best to impress the ladies. Like us, the female birds were spectators. We counted 14 prairie chickens in all, nine of them male.

After the last hen vacated the lek we were free to go. To exit the blind any sooner would risk disturbing a potential mating.

The same performance that we witnessed replays itself every morning in the early spring. Unfortunately, not all is well. The greater prairie chicken, once abundant before massive grassland habitat loss in the 19th and 20th centuries, is endangered in Illinois. Fewer than 100 survive in the state, and Prairie Ridge, managed chiefly by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, is the only place to see them. Another concern is that the genetic diversity of the Illinois birds is alarmingly low, a condition that hinders breeding success.

In 2011, a violent hail storm cut the Illinois prairie chicken population in half, according to Simpson. He said the public viewing program may not even be offered in 2013.

The Great Plains states have stable prairie chicken populations, Kansas and Nebraska in particular. You can even see the birds in Wisconsin, near Wisconsin Rapids, where an annual festival is held in their honor. But in the Prairie State, greater prairie chickens are hanging on by a thread.

On a happier note, the Schaumburg Boomers, a new minor league baseball team, opens at home on May 25. Their logo, a greater prairie chicken, is terrific. I like this team already! Best of all, it reminds me of the real boomers—the ones that play on a field down south, truly in a league of their own.

Copyright 2012 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.