IN EARLY DARK, AND WAITING FOR THE CHICKENS

(by Joe Neal April 2015)

Greater Prairie-Chicken Tallgrass Prairie Preserve April 14, 2015-28  Greater Prairie-Chicken Tallgrass Prairie Preserve April 14, 2015-26

THE GENERATION OF THE 1880s remembered why old Fayetteville was Prairie Township. An ancient black oak was a venerable landmark in a grassy expanse that had become town and university. It stood in the way of modernizing Dickson Street. In 1888, tears were reportedly shed as the old oak was sacrificed, cut down like bison of the 1820s and then, prairie chickens.

The little town was mega-izing, becoming a bigger town. The old oak had to go and so did the prairie.
Many generations of Greater Prairie-Chickens had known our town square and university hill, long before either. But already by the 1880s, the wild chickens were so rare as to evoke newspaper comment when someone saw even a single bird.
Skip forward seven generations and maybe history explains why after a 3-hour drive, it’s zero-dark-thirty and I’m on a school bus-load of folks waiting for chickens. We have been previously warned to get our personal business “all took care of” first, and especially not to drink coffee, because once we get on the bus and start waiting for chickens, there will be no talking and no moving around, and for sure no potty breaks even for the bladder-impaired.
Yes, now for better or worse, I’m on the trail of chickens. Where does this lead? Native grasslands of Prairie Township are two centuries past. To see prairie chickens, I’ve driven 150 miles north, or on a different morning, 200 miles northwest. That is to say, the chicken frontier has receded. I’m on the frontier, but not to add Greater Prairie-Chicken to a personal list.
The pattern in our species and civilization is preference for mega-church and mega-mart, and not, for example, prairie chickens and mega-prairie. Why is this? Why do we erase everything in our … well, path to … where?
Out here on the chicken frontier, people who know stuff, know prairie chickens among native grasses and flowers. Know wild chickens survive in the world of meadowlarks and nostalgic “western” movies. Know these largely invisible birds blend seamlessly into grassland fabric but gather in spring in a radical mating celebration. From a discrete distance, those on the bus hope to see the dance.

BIRDER’S HANDBOOK puts it this way: “… males spaced ca. 30’ apart, occupy lek; male inflates air sacs on sides of neck, tail erect, wings drooped, then rapidly drops head and deflates sacs with “boom.” Jumping displays follow and males run at each other with tail and neck tufts erect, sacs inflated.”

Ancient and meaningful as great pyramids; and like them, powerful symbols. It looks that way from the bus, too.
Two hundred years ago, high grasslands of today’s Fayetteville Square and the University hill were booming grounds. Genes that flowed through them flow through the chickens booming on native prairie grasslands in Missouri and Oklahoma.

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Greater Prairie-Chicken Tallgrass Prairie Preserve April 14, 2015-19    cream wild indigo Tallgrass April 13, 2015

SYMMETRICAL, GOLDEN HEADS OF CARROTLEAF LOMATIUM (Lomatium foeniculaceum) rise between abundant rocks. Lomatium’s filmy, fern-like leaves spread at The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve north of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Not a household word, lomatium? Not for me, either.

More than a century has passed since there were Greater Prairie-Chickens in or near Fayetteville. Memories of plowing the prairie and native chickens went to pioneer graves. This is why the concept of prairie, and prairie chickens, seems exotic in Arkansas’s Walmart Country. Indian trails became highways, a pioneer cabin became a city. A university campus stands in place of Big Bluestem Grass. We have lost our past.

It’s a 3-hour drive west into the Flint Hills of northeastern Oklahoma. Good old basic rocks are why it’s not further. Prairies in Arkansas were all plowed to death. No plow would survive five minutes in the Flint Hills. Sounds like a harsh place, but consider that in early April, what will be tall native grass by late summer is green sheen a few inches tall emerging among natural pavement.

Harvey Payne, who would become founding director of The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, as a kid rode horses through the Flint Hills. Rocks that made plowing impossible rang like bells under their hooves.

In April the Preserve is all about flowers. Besides lomatium, there’s immaculate Fringed Puccoon (Lithospermum incisium), with distinctive crinkled edges of yellow flowers and heavenly blue buds of Prairie Iris (aka Celestial Lily, Nemastylis geminiflora) that, like lomatium and puccoon, makes home among abundant rocks. Impressive masses of cream-colored, pea-like flowers cover wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata).

Cattle ranching and oil and gas production took root where no culture-of-the-plow could survive. Bison again live on the Preserve, with their old prairie associates, wild chickens.

Coyotes howl just before day breaks. Upland Sandpipers, arrived from winter in South America, announce with their wolf whistles. Eastern Meadowlarks sing all around. At bare first light, 6:30, come low rich hums and excited cackles of male Greater Prairie-Chickens, gathered on their booming grounds.

Tallgrass is about many things, not just chickens, but it includes firm commitments to their future. They strut, jump and cackle three hours from where there used to be prairie, and chickens, in Arkansas. Right now, this commitment conflicts with a modern version of the plow that wiped out chickens in Arkansas: our insatiable demand for energy fostering expansion of the wind energy industry.

Consider comments in Bartlesville [Oklahoma] Magazine (March-April 2015), by Bob Hamilton, Director of Tallgrass Prairie Preserve: “… The wind company is trying to wrap itself in the green blanket. But this entire area, even outside Tallgrass, is a significant area for prairie chickens, which will not stay in areas with tall structures … “

So here we have some pretty clear choices to make, don’t we, about what we want for a future.

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bison wallow Tallgrass April 14, 2015-2    Flint Hills after burn Tallgrass April 14, 2015
Bison wallow, and Flint Hills after a burn.


GROWING UP IN THE WESTERN ARKANSAS CITY OF FORT SMITH, I sure enough played my fair share of “cowboys and Indians.” Bowing at the waist, patting a hand over my mouth, singing “woo woo woo” in a supposed war dance, or something, probably learned from watching Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

I had to become a bird student to realize in our unwashed youth we ignorantly mimicked real dances of Plains Indians, who for millennia had watched and admired mating antics of prairie chickens with whom they shared that vast grassland. So maybe it was in that callow youth I was inoculated with chickens, or maybe later, starting in the 1980s, on a Doug James-led UA-Fayetteville Ornithology class spring break field trip that included a stop at Eagle Lake, Texas, on a refuge for endangered Attwater’s Prairie-Chickens.

The story here is habitat degradation and loss that unites endangered species. There’s nothing wrong with endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers that suitable habitat can’t address. While I worked for the Ouachita National Forest, we created a special management area over 200,000 acres, where everything you’d expect from your National Forest — camping, hunting, and logging, etc — continued, but with a twist in favor of habitat suitable for woodpecker recovery.

I got to thinking about this near Woodward, at the Oklahoma panhandle, sitting in the early dark, waiting to see Lesser Prairie-Chickens. It’s ranching country, with lots of sagebrush. Horned Larks are singing before sunrise. Tumbleweeds barrel across the highway when the wind blows, a little unnerving, especially in the dark, especially if you’re not used to that sort of thing.

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers slid toward extinction because of rapid, widespread cutting of old growth pine forests. Lesser Prairie-Chickens declined because they, like the woodpeckers, require a lot of suitable habitat. Birds associated with a lek, where the males display for females (remember my “Indian” dance here) may require 12,000+ acres over all seasons of high quality unfragmented rangeland with a workable combination of native grasses and forbs.

Woodpecker habitat was primarily fragmented by rapid logging over huge areas. In chicken habitat there is oil and gas production, roads, urban growth, new crops, sometimes overly-intense livestock grazing, and more recently, wind power. Chickens figured out long ago anything a hawk could use for a perch, or that is high and vertical — that is, perch-like — is a threat. They realistically abandon such areas.

Woodpeckers in the Ouachitas are making a comeback as fragmentation issues are addressed, with involvement by the Forest Service, loggers, and other partners. Nearly everything in Woodward County and adjacent counties with chickens, is private ranchland, so their buy-in is critical. Back in my Forest Service days we often made the case that a healthy population of woodpeckers signified an ecosystem suitable for all. Biologists make the same case about chickens.

Like woodpeckers, these wild chickens know their land. If we pay attention, they will share secrets with a big pay out in long term survival.

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