Last week's news column on prairie chickens ended with, "The slide was in full swing, however, and the last documented nesting was recorded in Appanoose County in 1952." I discussed the historical significance of prairie chickens. This week I will focus on the reintroduction efforts by the Iowa Conservation Commission and the present Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources.
So, from the last known nesting in 1952 to the first reintroduction efforts in the 1980s, there were no known nestings in Iowa. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reintroduced prairie chickens to Iowa twice in the 1980s - in the Loess Hills in Monona County and the Ringgold Wildlife Area in Ringgold County. While the Loess Hills attempt did not succeed, the Iowa DNR was able to establish a wild-nesting population from the birds released in Ringgold.
The focus since that time has been in Ringgold County. In 1999, the Kellerton Grasslands Bird Conservation Area (BCA) was created using the Ringgold Wildlife Area and other surrounding land. Many species of birds and other wildlife benefit from the grassland establishment efforts in this area.
Through these efforts, the prairie chicken is once again nesting in small numbers in Iowa. The breeding activity is quite a process to behold. At dawn on a cool spring morning, the male steps out into the open prairie. Fanning out his tail feathers and raising the two sets of feather tufts on his head, he starts calling for a mate. The call of the prairie chicken is no ordinary bird song; the male inflates brightly-colored air sacs on the side of his throat to make a deep booming sound while rapidly stomping his feet on the ground (dancing). Males gather on booming grounds (also called leks) to show off their booming and dancing skills, and hopefully catch the eye of a watching female.
Prairie chickens are being trapped by the IDNR in Nebraska and transported to the Kellerton Area through a cooperative arrangement with the Nebraska Fish & Game Commission. These birds are fitted with radio transmitters so that the information gathered can aid in future efforts. I really had to relate the story of one rather special female:
On April 4, 2013, a female prairie chicken fitted with a GPS tracking collar and released at Kellerton surprised and puzzled biologists by traveling 1,165 miles in big circles in southern Iowa and northern Missouri. The hen labeled Bird No. 112. Since then, she has avoided fatal dangers such as predators, vehicles, fences and utility lines in a ceaseless journey that has slowed but not stopped.
Bird No. 112's travels include: a northerly jaunt in Iowa after her release; a southerly loop into Missouri and then north back into Iowa; a visit to St. Joseph on Missouri's western boundary; a swing east past Kirksville in the state's north central region; a move back to Iowa and then flights past the bridges of Madison County southwest of Des Moines; a second trip to St. Joseph; a second visit to the Trenton, Mo., area; then a slow march back through northwest Missouri into Iowa where on July 29 she was feeding and nesting a couple of counties north of the state line near Kent, Iowa.
To give you a comparison of Bird No.112 travels, jet flight from Des Moines to Las Vegas would log 1,217 miles!
Biologists are not sure if some prairie chickens have always moved these distances, which would boost genetic diversity. Or, hen No. 112 may be looking for other prairie chickens and a landscape more resembling arid western Nebraska.
Today, most of the greater prairie chickens are found in Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, with small populations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, and North Dakota.