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Prairie chickens have elaborate and noisy mating rituals. (Steve Maanum / For the Enterprise)

Prairie chickens were part of our heritage

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outdoors Park Rapids, 56470
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

It may seem a bit early to be thinking spring, but actually I've been thinking about it since the day after Christmas. Each year, right when I get my calendar for the coming twelve months, I mark the important days - my wife's birthday - which is today (Happy Birthday, Deb), our anniversary, and the special days in the lives of our kids and their families. Once that's done, I mark some special nature days - including a trip to prairie chicken blinds so I can photograph the spring courtship activities.

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Most of Minnesota was considered the original prairie chicken range. Approximately twenty million acres of prairie grass provided a perfect habitat for these upland birds. When waves of settlers moved in during the late 1800s, the face of the land began to change. The seemingly endless prairies became speckled with villages and towns. More prairie acres were converted to agricultural lands and although that helped increase prairie chicken populations by providing new food sources, it eventually began to take its toll as more and more habitat was lost.

Prairie chickens were a part of our heritage and a tasty part of our menus right here on the Hubbard Prairie and on the Ponsford Prairie throughout the early 1900s. They were also part of my heritage in west-central Minnesota. I remember Dad telling stories of hunting prairie chickens by Hancock and Clontarf in the 1920s and 30s.

By the time Dad entered WWII, the prairie chicken population had declined so drastically that there was no longer a hunting season on them in Minnesota. They remained protected until 2003 when a very limited season re-opened.

Prairie chickens are members of the grouse family; a relative of their woodland cousin, the ruffed grouse. Both have unique courtship behaviors. With ruffed grouse, it's called drumming. We'll talk about that in a future column. With prairie chickens, it's called booming.

Before it gets light, the males fly onto the lek (booming grounds) and begin their vocal displays. They puff out the yellow air sacs along their necks and stomp their feet while making a booming sound. In between the booming, they will protect their territories by chasing other males and fighting with them. The booming, that can be heard over a mile away, is intermixed with cackling and whooping sounds. When the females show up, the activity intensifies.

Last spring a remote camera was placed on a booming ground at the Hamden Wildlife Refuge. The spring activity was recorded and is available for viewing on the Detroit Lakes Wetlands office web site. This spring, they hope to be streaming the video signal into classrooms.

If you have never heard or seen this colorful and noisy spring ritual, consider spending an early April or May morning in the blinds. Several locations are listed at www.prairiechicken.org. Two of the closest are located at Hamden Refuge or the Bluestem Prairie SNA near Glyndon. Call soon for your reservation and plan to take a kid along.

You can call Hamden Refuge at 847-4431 or Glyndon at 498-2679.

Steve Maanum can be reached at sdmaanum@

unitelc.com.

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