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Keith Corliss, Published April 28 2010

Feathered frenzy: Male prairie chickens put on display

Glyndon, Minn. - It begins subtly in the predawn darkness. Moist dew coats the prairie, strewn with spring’s fresh shoots amid the dried remains of last year’s growth.

Snipe are winnowing frantically overhead with robins singing incessantly nearby, and red-winged blackbirds are busy maintaining territorial boundaries amid the shriveled cattails.

Coming from somewhere in the dark, a flutter of wings announces the first arrival of the morning. Immediately he begins performing a dance honed by thousands of generations before him, a dance only seen on the remains of what once were vast swaths of tallgrass prairie. This ground is sacred – sacred to the greater prairie chicken at least. It’s been used for decades.

Dawn approaches. Males fly to the Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie Preserve, southeast of Glyndon, from all directions and take their earned positions on the lek (arena); dominant males in the middle, lesser ones on the outer reaches.

Each begins a solo performance worthy of a stage.

With tails and wings fanned, the birds crouch low and inflate bright orange-yellow air sacs while broadcasting a strange, deep, two-syllable moan. The entire exhibition is designed by nature to determine which birds win the right to mate with the females of the flock.

Scuffles ensue. Males face-off in an elaborate do-si-do of dominance. Spats rarely result in harm. Like their dancing, the fighting is mostly a show of bravado, not brute force.

Whether it’s exhaustion or boredom or some unseen signal, in late morning a moment arrives and all the birds depart, leaving the ground barren for the remainder of the day.

This primal ceremony will be repeated again tomorrow. And as long as there are large enough pieces of tallgrass prairie, it will go on for years, perhaps forever.

Keith Corliss works for Forum Communications Co. and writes an outdoors and birding blog, which can be found at www.areavoices.com/kcorliss.

He can be reached at (701) 241-5542 or kcorliss@forumm.com.