They’re called greater prairie chickens for a good reason. These plump, 2-pound relatives of the grouse live in the tall-grass prairie and supposedly taste like chicken. Once hunted for food, the population of these ground-foraging birds has diminished so much, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species as “vulnerable.”
Most of the year, these birds use their camouflage feathering to hide in the prairie grass where they dine on fruits, seeds, leaves, buds and bugs. The best time to spot them is in the early spring. That’s when the males head for open ground, called leks, where they hunt for mates. At this prairie chicken equivalent of a singles bar, watching the boys strut their stuff can be a downright fascinating experience.
It begins with the sound. Prairie chicken males have orange sacs on the sides of their throats, which they inflate like small balloons. Air booming from these sacs sounds like someone blowing across the top of an empty longneck, and it can be heard from as far as a mile away.
Along with the booming blasts, the birds perform a delightful prairie chicken dance in which they rapidly stomp their fully feathered feet like barefoot bathers scampering across hot sand. The birds do this with their elongated head feathers poking straight up like a pair of dark bunny ears. When the boys spot a female nearby, the action escalates, and the guys frequently charge each other in a frenzied fight.
For those who would like to witness this courtship ritual firsthand, the Chamber of Commerce in the northeastern Colorado town of Wray, offers two types of tours to a nearby lek, each accompanied by a representative from the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The tours run weekends generally from late March through late April.
The $75 basic tour (2010 price) involves a Friday night briefing session followed by a Saturday morning viewing. Bleary-eyed participants, who meet around 4 or 5 in the morning, are driven to the lek observation trailer where they will observe the birds for about 90 minutes. A ranch-style breakfast follows. Special tours, which go for $90 (2010 price), begin with a Saturday evening steak dinner, followed by a Sunday morning viewing and breakfast.
Space inside the viewing trailer is tight, bathrooms are nonexistent and the weather can be cold and miserable. Warm clothing, strong legs and big bladders are handy to have.
If You Go
Space is limited to 24 people per tour and fills quickly on a first come-first served basis, with payment required in advance. Act early. The program usually sells out by the end of January. For information and to reserve space, contact the Wray Chamber of Commerce, 970-332-3484.
Wray is located at the junction of U.S. Highways 34 and 385 in northeastern Colorado, about 170 miles east of Denver.
Dan Leeth is a freelance writer who lives in Aurora, Colorado. Visit his website, www.LookingForTheWorld.com.