Skip to main content

Prairie-chickens, once common in Ohio, have been gone for a century

A male greater prairie chicken shows more color than the hens

April 17, 2016

NATURE
Jim McCormac

About 50,000 people lived in Ohio in 1803, the year it became a state. They were greatly outnumbered by prairie chickens.

Two centuries ago, Ohio was far wilder than it is today. Most of the state was forested, but interspersed were vast prairies — about 1,500 square miles at the time of settlement.

Prairie regions blanketed vast swaths west of Columbus, south of Circleville, and in the Marion area. Noteworthy was the Oak Openings, a 300-square-mile mosaic of savannas and sandy prairie west of Toledo.

The prairies were exceptionally diverse in both flora and fauna. A standout among the prairie denizens was the greater prairie chicken.

Prairie chickens are related to wild turkeys and ruffed grouse, but they shun the forests preferred by those species. The treeless oceans of grasses and myriad sun-loving prairie plants are where the chickens roamed.

No one knows how many prairie chickens occupied Ohio in the early days. Vague settler accounts from the early 1800s cite “thousands” of prairie chickens in the larger prairies. They were undoubtedly a large part of Ohio’s prairie ecosystem.

By 1837, Ohio’s population had burgeoned to 1.5 million people. That year, a Vermonter turned Illinoisan named John Deere launched his steel chisel plow.

The prairies would never be the same. Deere’s device gave settlers a tool to cut thick prairie sod, and almost overnight, Ohio’s rich prairie was transformed into seas of crops.

Bolstered by agricultural and industrial advances, Ohio’s population passed 4 million people by 1900. Not coincidentally, that’s about when prairie chickens vanished from the state, unable to compete with the onrushing tide of humans.

I recently traveled to central Kansas to see and photograph prairie chickens, courtesy of Jackie Augustine of Ohio State University's Lima branch, who studies chickens in the Sunflower State.

Geoff Gould, one of Jackie’s doctoral students, escorted me to a blind on the edge of a prairie chicken lek, or dancing ground. After getting the lay of the land, I returned before sunrise the following morning.

As dawn cracked the horizon, the eerie whistled hoots of male prairie chickens began. Their mournful three-noted dirges were accompanied by frenzied squawks and clucks as the males jostled and sparred.

Shadowy silhouettes morphed into glorious prairie chickens, illuminated by a gorgeous sunrise.

The males gather on leks to court females. Strutting their stuff, they inflate air sacs on the neck that resemble egg yolks to create their telltale booming whistles.

The much plainer females strolled about, seemingly ignoring the pompous antics of the males. They’re sizing up prospective mates, though — the alpha male is likely to mate with almost all the hens, while lesser males might not get any girls.

Greater prairie chickens now occupy but a shadow of their former range. Fortunately, there are still places where they thrive, and I am grateful to have experienced the magic of a chicken lek in its full glory.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Pinching Beetle, a rather brutish looking bug

The world is awash in beetles, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Few of them can match the intimidation factor of a Pinching Beetle, Lucanus capreolus, though. Those formidable looking mandibles look like they could slice off a finger.

Today was one of those coolly diverse days. I started off down in Fayette County, visiting the farm of a friend. He has restored about 25 acres of wetlands, and the response by the animal community has been nothing short of phenomenal. Blizzards of dragonflies of many species, amphibians galore, and nesting Blue-winged Teal, Pied-billed Grebe, and Sora. Among MANY other things. And all in a short two years. Add water and they will come.

Then, working my way home, I ducked into a Madison County cemetery that has a thriving population of Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels, and shot images of our native prairie dog. Then, I stopped at a spot along Little Darby Creek, waded on in, and procured some pretty nice shots of various stream bluets and dancers. …

Calliope Hummingbird in central Ohio!

A hatch-year male Calliope Hummingbird strikes a pose. Small but tough, the hummingbird was feeding actively yesterday in 39 F temperatures. It frequents feeders and gardens at a home in Delaware County, Ohio, about a half-hour north of Columbus.

Fortunately, the wayward hummer appeared at the home of Tania and Corey Perry. Tania is a birder, and knew right away that the hummingbird was something special. For a while, the identification was up in the air, which isn't surprising. The Calliope Hummingbird used to be placed in its own genus, Stellula, but has recently been submerged into the genus Selasphorus, which includes Allen's, Broad-tailed, and Rufous hummingbirds. The latter two, especially, are quite similar to the Calliope in subadult plumage. Rufous is the default "vagrant" hummingbird here, with dozens of records and birds turning up annually. There is but one Ohio record of Allen's Hummingbird, from late fall/early winter 2009. Ditto the Calliope Hummi…

Ballooning spiders

Fear not, ye arachnophobes. The subject of this entry is indeed about spiders, but the star of the show is about as cute as a spider can get. And you'll want to know what we're about to learn...

On my recent West Virginia foray, we were strolling down a seldom-used lane, when a bright yellow object caught our eye. It was a goldenrod crab spider, Misumena vatia, on top of a post! Not only that, she - it is a girl - was acting extraordinarily goofy. The spider would stilt up as high as she could go on her legs, weave back and forth, jig side to side, and otherwise engage in what appeared to be spider break-dancing.

Click the pic for expansion, and you can see two columns of silk issuing from her spinnerets. This is an important point, as we set about determining what this non-web-making spider is doing.


So fixated was our spider on her task that she even rejected what would seem to me to be a perfectly scrumptious meal. This little caterpillar climbed rapidly up the post and dire…