Rise and Shine: Prairie Chickens Strut Their Stuff

Once a common sight across the Illinois and Wisconsin plains, prairie chickens are best spotted these days in designated reserves. Here, writer Greg Peck explores what it’s like to track down these birds in their most ostentatious time of year.

The mating rituals of prairie chickens, once a sight common across the Wisconsin plains, is now a spectacle that’s closely watched by conservationists in dedicated reserves.
By Greg Peck

What would possess two retired guys with supposedly sound minds to get up about the time bartenders are serving “last call” drinks and drive 2 hours, stumble through a muddy pasture by flashlight, and crawl into a tent at 4:30 a.m. in an open field in temperatures around freezing?

Call us crazy, but that’s what Tim Benson, one of my Marshall High School classmates, and I did in 2021.

We relished a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe the strange, haunting and humorous mating ritual of prairie chickens on one of the bird’s “booming grounds” in central Wisconsin, this one in Buena Vista Marsh.

After Tim and I discovered our mutual interest in bird photography, he applied for a program administered through UW-Stevens Point. We figured odds of acceptance were long, so we were surprised to secure an April 15 opening.

Tim, a turkey hunter, had a camouflage tent. He and two men from Racine, Wis., met Peggy Farrell of UW-Stevens Point at 6 p.m. on April 14 to erect tents. Had they not, finding the spot in predawn darkness would have been near impossible.

In Janesville, I woke before my 1:30 a.m. alarm, drove 90 minutes north and met Tim in Coloma, Wis.

“Well, it might be cold, but at least it’s windy,” I greeted him sarcastically.

Loading gear in his vehicle, we headed north 20 miles to Bancroft, Wis., where we turned west and found the unmarked gravel road we needed. We waited until the Racine duo arrived and then drove to the parking spot.

The Racine men, who had separate tents, led our zigzag trudge. After we stepped over a second fence line, they counted fence posts before we turned south. We scared a bird that rocketed away, reminding me of a pheasant. “Well, at least we know one prairie chicken is around,” Tim said.

That buoyed our hopes. Knowing little about prairie chickens, I wondered whether the recent cold snap had shut down their mating season much like a chilly stretch stops fish from biting.

I had forgotten how brilliant stars are away from city lights. The outlines of three domed side-by-side tents came into view, and a falling star dropped over them. Somehow, that seemed symbolic, further boosting my optimism.

With my companions donning headlamps, I felt inadequate carrying a flashlight. We reached the tents in good time, but I felt even more ill-prepared after seeing the others pull out massive camera lenses. My hopes hinged on a Sony camera so small I carried it in a belt pouch. Its zoom projected 3 inches.

We wore hats, parkas and coveralls but wondered how cold we’d get sitting for 4 hours. Fortunately, little wind slipped under our bottomless tent. With viewing windows to the west and south, the north wind wasn’t a problem. Tim and I never needed our gloves.

We waited and whispered about our adventure and old times. To our northeast, distant trains rumbled and tooted. To the west, farm lights marked the horizon and two cell towers blinked. About 20 minutes into our wait, a faint rapid-fire cackle echoed through the darkness.

“Did you hear that?” I whispered.

“Yes,” Tim said.

A minute later, machine-gun chatter arose again, then again.

Next came a sound like someone in the adjacent tent had terrible indigestion. Tim missed it the first time. But whoo, whoo, whoooo sounds – of booming cocks – came again and again. We gazed into the blackness in futile efforts to see the birds.

The crescendo of cackles, booms and seagull-like squawks left me wishing I had a sound recorder to capture this amazing, surreal, magnificent eruption. We smiled in excitement.

Finally, as dawn drew near, we spotted the flutters of a bird to our southwest. It boomed and leaped and drew so close we wondered whether it might pop into our hideout.

As night gave way to gathering light, we were eager to start taking pictures using our tripods. We had no idea how long the show might last and didn’t want to miss chances to capture these antics.

Our first clicks, however, proved fruitless – fuzzy, faded images lacking light. Eventually, as daylight grew, we fired away at the dancing birds along their mating ridge. We grinned at our digital images. Clouds now covered most of the sky, but when the rising sun at our backs finally popped out, the brilliance bolstered this scene of mostly brown and tan foliage and birds. The neck air sacs of booming cocks became vibrant orange orbs in sunlight.

We chuckled whenever two males squared off in displays of cock-sure bravado. Prancing and posturing, they ducked heads with orange eyebrows and exploded in miniature tornadoes of wings and tails and feathers. Sometimes they staked territorial claims, then walked away indifferently.

As they approached females, cocks danced in rapid, Fred Astaire-like movements. Sometimes, two or three circled a female. I chuckled when a hen approached two cocks from behind. Only once did I observe – and photograph – a male mount a female.

“Now you’re a porn star,” Tim said.

“Yes, of prairie porn,” I said in response.

At peak numbers, we counted 20 birds, perhaps three-fourths males. By 8 a.m., we were stiff and itching to escape our confines. The sun’s higher elevation reduced shadows and photographic quality. The birds dwindled to fewer than a dozen.

Then a large bird approached from the west. Was it a crow? A hawk? It may have been a harrier, which Farrell had seen, but the raptor buzzed past the unfazed prairie chickens.

By 8:30 a.m., Tim and I talked quietly and had all but stopped shooting. Farrell had asked us to wait until all birds left the booming grounds. Suddenly, as if someone fired a starter pistol, the birds shot into the air, and we climbed out of our tents.

The wind, forecasted for up to 20 miles per hour, was stunningly brisk. We slipped on gloves and, after pulling stakes, fought to fold and pack Tim’s tent before it sailed away.

Tim and I drove back to Coloma and enjoyed a café breakfast. We reviewed my notes and recapped the weather and timing of bird counts. Tim marked a scoresheet that helps wildlife managers monitor the flock. The birds were so numerous, and movements so scattered, that specifics felt inadequate.

Material from Farrell explained that greater prairie chickens, one of four native grouse species, once covered the lower third of Wisconsin. As loggers worked forests, the birds spread across the state. But diminishing grasslands and hunters sending barrels of them by train to Chicago restaurants decimated the population. Aldo Leopold and the pioneering work of Frederick and Frances Hamerstrom helped rescue the birds. The first parcel at Buena Vista was purchased in 1954, and contributions of the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology and other groups expanded the management zone to 15,000 acres.

A 2019 report showed male populations stable at Buena Vista and dozens of booming grounds dotting central Wisconsin.

Tim and I appreciated these efforts. On a scale of 1 to 10, we agreed: Our outing scored a 10.

Viewing prairie chickens costs $60 per person and occurs each April, but spots fill up quickly. For information, call (715) 346-4681, email [email protected] or visit uwsp.edu.