Watching Prairie Chickens Dance

Chandler Clay

Lesser Prairie Chicken


I had the opportunity recently to attend the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival in Woodward, Oklahoma.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended the lesser prairie chicken be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, so you can imagine there aren’t too many opportunities to view the chicken in its natural habitat. You can also imagine that spotting one isn’t as simple as walking down the streets of Woodward.

Seeing the lesser prairie chicken required getting up before the crack of dawn. By 5:45 a.m., my fellow festival goers and I were already up, caffeinated and shuttled some 45 minutes to a remote section of the 14,000-acre Selman Guest Ranch, in Buffalo, OK. There, we silently squeezed into small camouflaged blinds in the middle of pitch-black prairie.

As dawn broke, we could hear coyote cries and the lowing of cattle. Then came the high-pitched, bubbling sounds of the lesser prairie chicken cocks. That sound is the reason the bird’s mating habitat is informally known as its gobbling grounds.

Every April, lesser prairie chicken males assemble at these mating grounds, also known as leks. The cocks lift their feathers, show their bright yellow and red coloring, and begin dancing to attract the hens.

It was marvelous to witness this dance from just 30 feet away, but even better to participate in an activity that would help protect the lesser prairie chicken from its biggest threat: barbed wire fences. Collisions with barbed wire fences are the No. 1 direct cause of prairie chicken deaths in Oklahoma. More of these birds, which fly low to the ground in the early morning darkness, die by flying into fences than through predation.  

I had the opportunity on my day in the field to help prevent a few of these deadly collisions by attaching small white plastic tags to the barbed wire so that the prairie chickens can see it.

Other threats to the lesser prairie chicken include habitat loss and vertical structures, such as wind turbines, transmission lines and even certain trees. The birds avoid such structures for fear of hawks and other perching predators.

Environmental Defense Fund is among the leaders in an effort to save this species. We are working with farmers, ranchers, energy companies, conservation organizations and wildlife agencies from Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado and Oklahoma to reduce threats to the lesser prairie chicken through a program called the Habitat Exchange. The idea is to mitigate the impacts of industry by offering credits to local landowners for preserving the bird’s habitat. 

If we get this right, then attendees at future Lesser Prairie Chicken Festivals will be able to see more and more birds every year.