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Why don’t prairie chickens cross the road (anymore)

February 9, 2014
Kevin Williams - Grundy County Conservation Director , Reinbeck Courier

The annual statewide meetings of county conservation departments were held in Waterloo last week. One of the educational sessions that I attended was on the present status of Greater Prairie Chickens in Iowa. I found it quite interesting. Over the years, I have read and shared information about the historical record on prairie chickens in Grundy County and the surrounding area.

Now, there is far too much information to share in one column so this week I'll talk about the historical record and next week I'll finish up by updating you on the reintroduction efforts that have been done.

A native bird, the prairie chicken was a valuable food source for the American Indian and the early pioneers to this area. Although once common across Iowa, the prairie chicken fell to the gun and plow as the rich prairies were turned to crop fields and tens of thousands were killed in the 1870s and 1880s, mostly due to market hunting. In the past, flocks of 300 or more chickens would gather in the winter stubble fields. One flock viewed in 1884 near Charles City " flight was half a mile long, fifty yards wide, and three to four birds deep. If each bird occupied an area of two by two yards and the birds were three deep, the flock contained 33,000 birds..." according to "A Country So Full of Game," by James J. Dinsmore.

It is Dinsmore's book that has provided me with a wealth of historical information on Iowa's prairie chickens. While common on the prairie, the population likely reached its most abundant numbers in the late 1870s and 1880s as cropfields and hayfields began to cover the Iowa landscape. E.H. Beckman in "A History of Grundy County from earliest times to present (1870)" wrote that by 1870, a piece of unbroken prairie was the exception rather than the rule. It was also during part of this period that market hunting was still legal and a popular means of filling the ravenous food demands of big cities like Chicago.

Prairie chickens were relatively tame and could be approached closely before they flushed. One 1860's account south of Marshalltown related 708 killed in one day by a party of hunters with another group of six killing 311. And from most accounts, while large numbers were shot an even greater number were trapped in simple box traps.

In 1864, three train carloads were shipped from Marshalltown to Chicago at a price of $2 per dozen. In the winter of 1871-72, a firm in Waterloo shipped 3,600 prairie chickens to the East coast.

I mentioned earlier that the birds were an important food source for early settlers. Not only for meat, however. In the 1860s and 70s, farmers routinely burned the prairies to remove the residual vegetation and in an attempt to control grasshopper numbers. Herbert Quick in his autobiography "One Man's Life" recalled gathering as many as 200 prairie chicken eggs after one of these burns. The ones that cooked in the fire were eaten immediately and the others stored.

It is hard to believe that the prairie chicken is yet another example of an almost immeasurable wildlife species that quickly disappeared from the landscape. Despite early Iowa legislation attempting to protect the birds, the decline was such that in 1900 hunting was banned. The slide was in full swing, however, and the last documented nesting was recorded in Appanoose County in 1952.

Next week we'll look at the reasons and the modern Iowa attempts at reintroduction of the species.



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