Perhaps you’ve never been to the eastern plains of New Mexico. I can describe the scene for you in one word: Flat. Sparsely populated, sparsely vegetated, and sparsely sparse, it is a land of big horizons. Once, before courageous, stubborn, and perhaps misguided farmers and ranchers tried to wrest a living from it, it was all short-grass prairie. But Euro-Americans plowed it for dry-land farming and brought cattle to graze it. One look at it today, especially on a windy spring day when the dust blows, tells you that even if a cow once could have made a living on its over-grazed vastness, those days are long gone.
Before 1880, it was covered with buffalo grass and bison. Buffalo grass, and its cousins, blue grama grass and little bluestem grass, sustained the great bison herds of the southern plains for more than ten thousand years.
Capable of surviving all but the most extended droughts, short-grass prairie could survive neither the cow nor the plow.
Bison, on the other hand, helped the short grasses. They fertilized it, churned the soil so seeds could germinate, and they moved the seed around. In return, the grass, even with its low load of carbohydrates, provided succulent new shoots for the bison to eat.
The grass, evolved to a perfect fit for semi-arid land, could hold moisture a foot below the surface, even during hot, windy days and long dry summers. Timothy Egan wrote of it:
As long as the weave of grass was stitched to the land, the prairie flourished in dry years and wet. The grass could look brown and dead, but beneath the surface, its roots held the surface in place; it was alive and dormant. . . In turn, the grass nurtured pin-tailed grouse, prairie chickens, cranes, jackrabbits, snakes, and other creatures that got their water from foraging on the native turf.”
Only small islands remain and some of those small islands are home to the few remaining Lesser Prairie Chickens. We’ve destroyed about 92% of their habitat, killing about 97% of their population. Nobody knows for sure how many are left, but they once numbered, like the bison, in the millions. Today only thousands remain. Not only did we destroy their habitat, we hunted them like grouse. Of course, they are grouse.
They needed a nobler name.
Once they lived throughout western North America. Fossil remains from the Pleistocene Glaciation have been found in from Oregon to New Mexico. Today they live only in isolated pockets of sand sage or shinnery oak rangeland in extreme southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, the eastern edges of the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles and eastern New Mexico.
The males attract their mates – and hardy human watchers – on traditional display grounds known as leks. Often on knolls or ridges and always in areas of sparse vegetation, the males gobble and hop and display, raising their tails, erecting feathers, drooping wings, enlarging their eye-combs, stamping their feet and “booming” by expanding esophageal air sacs. The show starts an hour or so before sunrise and continues for two or three hours. The successful males copulate with as many females as possible before retiring for the day. Sometimes, they return for an early evening encore performance. The females retire to nests, which are usually within a mile or so of the lek, to brood and raise the young.
Lesser Prairie Chickens eat grasshoppers, leaves, flowers, and seeds, especially shinnery oak acorns. They, in turn, are eaten by hawks, eagles, Prairie Falcons, coyotes, badgers, snakes, and humans. Like other grouse, they burst into flight when startled and often fly when moving to and from their gobbling grounds, feeding areas, roosting sites, and loafing sites. Most flights are short-distance, low-level affairs with alternating wing-flapping and gliding.
But mostly they are gone now, victims of a human culture that produced a mind-set enabling Phil Sheridan, General of the U.S. Army to say,
The hide hunters will do more in the next few years to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years. For the sake of a lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then the prairies can be covered with the speckled cattle and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as the forerunner of civilization.
What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset. (Crowfoot, Blackfoot Indian.)
That little shadow might have been a prairie chicken.
The photos of the Lesser-Prairie Chickens were taken last week by friend Linda Rockwell, who has a new blog showcasing her bird photography. You’ll find it here and many more photos of prairie chickens.
The bison photo is by Jack Dykinga of the USDA.
For more on the bison, short-grass partnership, see The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History 1750-1920, by Andrew Isenberg of Princeton.
For more on the Lesser Prairie Chicken and its relationship to short-grass prairie, see Hagen, Christian A. and Kenneth M. Giesen. 2005. Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/364 (Subscription required)