OUTDOOR NEWS: Prairie chickens take center stage | Sports


KELERTON- The haunting cooing begins before sunrise as dark shapes appear on the lek, seemingly out of nowhere. Jumping, charging and sparring – it’s serious competition between male prairie chickens to show off their value as companions to females watching nearby.

This ancient ritual is repeated every spring on the thriving field of short grass that is part of the Kellerton Bird Conservation Area in Ringgold County. Kellerton was one of a handful of public areas where Kansas prairie chickens were released in the late 1980s and early 1990s as part of a reintroduction effort. It is currently home to the only prairie chicken population in Iowa.

The area received nearly 500 additional birds from Nebraska from 2012 to 2017 to diversify genetics and boost the population.

Between the Kellerton area and the Dunn Ranch, just across the border in Missouri, there are between 100 and 150 prairie chickens that inhabit the Grand River grasslands. The habitat is managed through a partnership between The Nature Conservancy, the Missouri Department of Conservation, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Much habitat work has been done in these areas and on private land nearby, with the goal of creating the vast, treeless grasslands necessary for prairie chickens to survive.

“Ideally, we’d like to have 800 birds here, which would make this a sustainable population, but we’re a long way from that,” said Stephanie Shepherd, wildlife biologist with the Iowa DNR Wildlife Diversity Program. “Prairie chickens are like other ground-nesting birds that struggle with cool, wet springs and freezing winters, and the weather just isn’t cooperating for prairie chickens to thrive.”

While the focus on habitat was for grassland chickens, a secondary benefit is for grassland birds that require similar expansive habitats. With all the improvements on and near Kellerton, the area was the first dedicated bird conservation area in Iowa and it was recognized as a globally important area for grassland birds.

After a two-year hiatus, the popular Prairie Chicken Day is back.

The Iowa DNR is hosting a prairie chicken viewing day on April 9, starting at sunrise at the viewing platform, west of the main lek in the Bird Conservation Area by Kellerton. MNR will have staff available to answer questions and additional telescopes to view the birds.

“Prairie chickens are most active and visible from mid-March to mid-April, and they explode at sunrise and sunset,” Shepherd said. “Sunset offers a better view because the platform faces east, so the sun will be at your back, but there may not be as many birds as in the morning.”

There is no cost to attend.


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