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These birds bring new meaning to chicken dance

A prairie chicken takes flight last May at the Rydell Refuge. Herald file photo by Eric Hylden.

If you have ever attended a wedding dance, you probably have done the chicken dance.

And if you complied with your partner's wishes to do the chicken dance, and perhaps twirled her around the floor a few times along with a few belly-rubbing slow dances, you might have been rewarded later for your chivalry.

Friday morning -- and I do mean morning -- I witnessed a different variety of the chicken dance. The exertion of each dancer -- all of them males -- was the equivalent of doing 343,765 polkas and 1 billion butterfly dances.

The reward earned for three hours of dancing? Zero. And their self-esteem? No doubt, it was shattered.

The dancers were male prairie chickens attempting to attract mating partners at one of the booming grounds at the Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge between Crookston and Mentor, Minn. Watching this courtship ritual with me in Blind No. 4 were Loren Johnson of Crookston and UM-Crookston natural resources senior Erick Elgin.

My two blind partners are nature nerds, enthralled by everything animate or inanimate in the environment. They even stopped to analyze animal scat ingredients. Ewww. Erick is a "plant guy," meaning he's a grass-hugger.

So what was my motive to awaken at 3:30 a.m., and brave 37 degrees, a biting into-our-faces wind and rain for the almost-a-mile walk to the blind? Cheap jollies, romancing tips and a column, that's what.

Five minutes after taking our seats at 5:20 a.m. in the fully-enclosed blind, which shockingly didn't have cable television, the booming sounded. This noise, which sounds like a foghorn, is created by the male inflating the air sac in his neck. It's a mesmerizing "come hither" sound.

When the air sac inflates, its orange color becomes visible. The eyebrows also are orange when he does the avian equivalent of bicep-flexing, making for a color-coordinated outfit like back in the days of disco. Adding to the virile look are head feathers that can be pointed forward to look like spurs to scare off rival suitors.

At the same time, he stomps his feet so rapidly that it creates a clicking noise. You'd swear the bird is a windup toy upon seeing the blur of his feet. Meanwhile he's clucking, a noise that I swear sounds like "pick me, pick me."

Between the booming, the inflating, the stomping, the strutting, the menacing and the preening, the males are making supreme efforts, all with the sole goal of puffing on a post-coital cigarette. An hour before the girls arrive, the boys are fighting for territory.

When they finally do make the scene, the female temptresses sashay around the booming grounds, looking nonchalant. They are as aloof as if they're window shopping, which is exactly what they're doing. They're picky because they're looking for the strongest, most virile male so they can have healthy chicks.

They can be picky because of the numbers. The grounds had eight males chasing four females, which coincidentally is the same ratio as in downtown Grand Forks bars.

Just when it looked as though there would be two love connections, even without the help of Chuck Woolery, a hawk buzzed the booming grounds about 7 a.m. The prairie chickens scattered.

Within 30 seconds, the eight boys returned. Potential death was no deterrent when there was even a faint chance of affection.

The three of us waited in the blind another 90 minutes for the girls to return, but they never did. They knew the boys would be back tomorrow. I felt bad for the boys, who had worked so hard. As we left, we advised them to try wine and flowers.

The day's lesson was that nature isn't fair, at least when it comes to male prairie chickens. If Adam had needed to work this hard to excite Eve, the world would have lasted one generation.