It's a bizarre courtship performance of the sort nature documentaries love to feature. But it lacks the exotic locale often required to attract finicky viewers, and the animals, well, they're chickens, prairie chickens, and few people expect a bunch of chickens to elicit much excitement. The thrills, though, are real, and North America's prairies will offer plenty of them during the next few months. The key is finding the right spot and getting there very early in the morning.
Prairie chickens are native game birds of North America. There are two kinds of prairie chicken, and both are chunky, brown, chicken-like prairie natives. The Greater Prairie-Chicken is the larger of the two varieties and has a broader range, encompassing eleven Midwestern and Plains states.
Whereas Greater Prairie-Chickens prefer tallgrass prairies, Lesser Prairie-Chickens choose a shortgrass prairie habitat. Once rather widespread, Lesser Prairie-Chickens now exist only in northern Texas, western Oklahoma, southwestern Kansas, and southeastern Colorado.
Prairie chickens are sometimes called arena birds. Arena birds can be found all over the world. What earns them that name is the tendency of males to pick out a special area, or arena, in which to display for interested females. In the case of prairie chickens, the males arrive at their arenas just before sunrise. The arenas, also called leks, look no different to humans than the rest of the prairie — that is, until a female or two glide or strut onto the scene, and the males start to trying to impress.
Bending forward and raising their tail feathers and the special dark feathers near their heads, the male prairie chickens then inflate the air sacs along their throats (orange in the Greater and pink or purplish in the Lesser). From these sacs the birds let out great booming calls, which resonate across the early morning prairie lands. "Ooo-loo-loo, ohh-loo-loo" echoes from all around as the suitors serenade females. To top off the performance, the anxious males rapidly stamp the ground as they call, thus creating a strange song-and-dance routine.
To witness the spectacle in person, contact a local nature organization. The National Audubon Society, for example, has offices across the country.