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McFeely: Minnesota's prairie chicken show never disappoints

If not for the efforts of The Nature Conservancy and the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society, there might not be prairie chickens left in the state. Their numbers dwindled to a concerning level by the mid-1980s, their habitat ruined by the plow. They are now confined to remnant and restored grasslands in a few counties. One of those is Clay County, close enough to Fargo-Moorhead that before the sun rises over the prairie the lights of the metro glow brightly in the west.

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Three male prairie chickens face off at the Nature Conservancy's Bluestem Prairie in Glyndon, Minn.
David Samson / The Forum
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GLYNDON, Minn. — If the world is a mess, and there is substantial evidence it is, the prairie chickens don't care.

By extension, those watching prairie chickens eventually don't care. If only temporarily.

Long live the prairie chickens.

They are back to doing their thing in rural Clay County on the Bluestem Prairie, and those lucky enough to spy on their mating ritual should come away feeling a little less cynical and a little more hopeful. It is a rite of spring, a renewal of life on a patch of grass that happens no matter what lie an opportunistic leech is saying on TV or what actions soulless politicians are taking in pursuit of power.

The birds showed up by the dozens the other day, before the sun rose on a windy and raw morning as a few voyeuristic humans huddled in two 4-foot by 8-foot plywood blinds to see the males strut and dance while the object of their desires, the outnumbered females, acted mostly disinterested. The goal is sex, and by happenstance the propagation of the species, and the guys don't leave anything in the bag.

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In this way, prairie chickens aren't all that different from humans. But that is, thankfully, where the similarities end.

I was allowed a show last week thanks to the graciousness of the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society and The Nature Conservancy, in particular Brian Winter and his wife Sonia. They invited some media types and VIPs to inhabit the blinds 20 miles east of Moorhead, in hopes of spreading the word of these magnificent birds. It was my third time seeing the show, but the first in at least 10 years.

To get a seat is a golden ticket. The blinds have been on this patch of restored prairie adjacent to Buffalo River State Park since the late 1980s, and during prime booming time of late April to mid-May they are filled with folks who've signed up for the privilege. For some it is a bucket-list item, to see (and hear) the prairie chickens booming. Visitors from all 50 states and a dozen foreign countries have peered out at the wondrous exhibition, and taken thousands of photos and hours of video.

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A male prairie chicken inflates his air sac in a mating display at the Nature Conservancy's Bluestem Prairie in Glyndon, Minn.
David Samson / The Forum

"We've been tormenting these birds for over 30 years," Brian said, fully joking.

There is no tormenting. If not for organizations like The Nature Conservancy and the MPCS, there might not be prairie chickens left in Minnesota. Their numbers dwindled to a concerning level by the mid-1980s, their habitat ruined by the plow. Prairie chickens were once a popular game bird in the state, "as common as blackbirds" the old-timers said, but are now confined to remnant and restored grasslands in a few counties.

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One of those is Clay County, close enough to Fargo-Moorhead that before the sun rises over the prairie the lights of the metro glow brightly in the west. The yardlights of a rural housing development a mile or two away shine as the visitors to the blinds await the arrival of the prairie chickens.

You're advised to be seated and settled by 5:30 a.m., meaning you'd best be parked at the dead-end gravel road by 5 a.m. to allow for the mile walk in the dark to the blinds. You sit on a wooden bench, facing west, hoping you're dressed warm enough to sit for four hours in the 40-degree temperatures. Sunrise isn't until 6:30, so you strain to see through the murky pre-dawn dusk.

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Male prairie chickens battle at the Nature Conservancy's Bluestem Prairie in Glyndon, Minn.
David Samson / The Forum

A trio of mallards twirls over a nearby pond at 5:45, quacking as the sky is getting noticeably lighter. And at 6 a.m., the telltale sound of a male prairie chicken rises low from the grass somewhere in front and to the left of the blind. It's too dark to see the birds, but they've arrived from their roosts.

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The noise, the signature boom, is made when male prairie chickens inflate the orange sacs on their necks as a way to attract females. Think of the sound made when you blow across the top of an empty glass soda or beer bottle. It is a low, resonant “whhooo-doo-doooohh." Once it begins, it is the constant background noise until most of the birds leave by 9:30.

By 6:15 it is light enough to see and there are a dozen male prairie chickens on the short, brown grass in front of the blinds booming, strutting, looking for love. Another flies in and lands, joining the party. Then two more, and another and another.

After a lull at 6:45 when the birds hunkered down in the wind, their brown and gray feathers camouflaging with the ground, the symphony and theatrics began in earnest at about 7 o'clock. It wouldn't fully stop for 2 1/2 hours.

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Male prairie chickens battle at the Nature Conservancy's Bluestem Prairie in Glyndon, Minn.
David Samson / The Forum

To watch a prairie chicken dance is to see a nondescript, dully colored grouse transform into something in "Saturday Night Fever." From wallflower nerd to center-stage star. The males puff out their chests, inflate air sacs on their neck and above their eyes, fan their wings toward the ground, make their tails erect while sticking their rear ends upward, and stick black feathers on each side of their head straight up in the air.

Some birds will charge others to scare them off. Others leap off the ground and scrap with each other in mid-air. A few of the males found the highest tuft of grass they could, perhaps four inches higher than the surrounding ground, and cackled or whooped in an attempt to draw attention to themselves.

And the stomping. Can't forget the stomping. When a male prairie chicken is in full display, he'll stomp his feet in place rapidly a dozen times or so. Like he's putting out a fire.

There were three dozen birds 20 yards in front of the blinds, and perhaps another couple of dozen just below a small ridge beyond that, all strutting and charging and stomping and scrapping all at once. It was a cacophony of whooping, booming and cackling that wouldn't end. You wondered how exhausted the birds were at the end of it all.

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A male prairie chicken walks the grounds at the Nature Conservancy's Bluestem Prairie in Glyndon, Minn.
David Samson / The Forum

While this was happening, a pair of sleek pintail ducks swooped around the pond several times. Six white swans lifted from the water and flew out of sight. Mallards, wood ducks and teal zoomed by on the jet-stream winds. A flock of sandhill cranes used their long, languid wingbeats to slowly cross the sky south-to-north.

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A broad-winged raptor cruised overhead a couple of times, making some of the birds nervous, but there were no attacks. Even a couple of sharp-tailed grouse, rare for these parts, wandered onto the booming grounds amid the prairie chickens.

Yet the show, as it's been for more than 30 years for those lucky enough to score a front-row seat, was the prairie chickens. A world-class nature show, National Geographic-worthy, 20 minutes from Fargo-Moorhead.

When it closed at 9:30 a.m. and the cold walk was made back to the pickup truck, news of a murderous war in Ukraine and a foolish war against Disney awaited on the radio. It's news of which the prairie chickens are unaware and those who watched the birds were able to forget for the moment.

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A male prairie chicken struts in a mating display at the Nature Conservancy's Bluestem Prairie in Glyndon, Minn.
David Samson / The Forum

The birds would be back the next day and the next until the middle of May when most females have picked a mate and made a nest. All that booming and strutting isn't just for show. And, God willing, the prairie chickens will be back next year to do it all over again.

Get a ticket, if you can. They're free. Much cheaper than "Hamilton" and much closer to home.

Long live the prairie chickens.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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