Prairie Chickens: The Vanishing Bird

Once they were more numerous than bison — so many that market hunters filled wagons with them to ship East to the fine restaurants. Now, they are a trophy animal. The greater prairie chicken, a bird that fed the pioneers heading West and the fat cat gourmands on the East.

I hunted them off and on for more than 20 years before I finally shot one. It’s enough. While the Greater Prairie Chicken (properly called a pinnated grouse) isn’t in danger of extinction, it’s close enough to cool my enthusiasm for shooting any more.

A prairie chicken on booming ground, where it goes to attract females.

The Greater is one of four prairie chicken species. The Heath Hen, which greeted colonists along the Eastern seaboard is extinct and the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, which once thrived on the coastal plains of Texas and Louisiana, is down to less than 300 birds, all either stocked from captive bird hatches, or the progeny of stocked birds. The Lesser Prairie Chicken has been squeezed primarily into the southwest corner of Kansas and is in sharp decline.

Today, Greater Prairie Chickens are legal game in four states: Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Colorado (there is also a limited, lottery-drawing hunt in Minnesota). The Kansas Flint Hills remains the stronghold for hunting, although the birds range widely in the Sunflower State (I shot mine in north-central Kansas).

The Greater Prairie Chicken still is the most widespread and numerous of the three remaining races of pinnated grouse. The greater originally occupied a huge area, as far east as western Pennsylvania, the southern parts of the Lake States (Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota,) the eastern parts of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and into northeast Texas. In the South, the bird extended into southern Arkansas and Missouri, southern Illinois, and northern Kentucky.

In 1900, there were an estimated 1 million prairie grouse in Canada, but by 1980 they were essentially gone. Missouri also once had 1 million or more, but now the population is less than 500. Some states, notably Minnesota, have restoration efforts ongoing, but prairie chickens logically require prairie, lots of it, and their tallgrass habitat has shrunk almost to zero everywhere. Add intrusions by man, especially oil and gas exploration, and such added threats as fire ants, housing developments, roads, and on and on.

Prairie chicken hunting takes two forms: posting near a roost or feeding area and pass shooting, or walking the birds up. Prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse have similar habits. Pass shooting is for the genteel, those who subscribe to the shooting stand, the tweeds and stirrup cup after the shoot (or those who are fond of the easy way out).

Walking the birds up can be an exercise in endurance. Despite its awful shrinkage over the last century, there still are considerable stretches where the horizon seems awfully far away and when you finally get there, home seems equally far away.

The author with a Kansas prairie chicken.

I opted for the ambush. The chickens had been flying into a huge corn stubble field an hour or so before sunset and would do so as regular as clockwork until the food was gone. Sure enough, about 4 p.m. the first birds appeared — scouts to check for danger. It was a good time to hide. I stood behind a power pole and tried to look like a fencepost. 

The main body of the flock followed a few minutes later and they straggled into the field for 15 minutes or so. Almost all were out of range and all were pedal-to-the-metal. A prairie chicken in full flight is deceptively fast and easy to miss. Finally a pair blitzed past me some 40 yards out and I dropped the rear one, ending my two decade quest. 

I could have mounted it, but that would reduce it to the status of the Heath Hen, which today exists only as dusty, mounted birds. I’d rather remember a cold winter day near dusk on a bleak Kansas plain with a half-hundred or more prairie chickens flickering past. 

For a fine selection of Upland hunting gear, click here.

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