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Field Notes: Springtime Prairie-Chicken Viewing
By Mary Taylor Young
It’s amazing. It’s comical. It’s one of the outstanding spectacles of wildlife viewing in North America. It’s the courtship dance of the prairie-chickens and you’ve probably never seen anything like it.
Prairie-chickens are members of the grouse family—plump, chicken-like, ground-dwelling birds that live on Colorado's Eastern Plains. Rarely seen most of the year, they gather in spring on ancestral dancing grounds, called leks, to dance and court. They can be easily observed by diligent wildlife watchers willing to be in place for the show well before dawn.
As the sun comes up, prairie-chickens make their way onto the lek, a spot used by the birds for generations. Soon, the lek will be alive with wild chickens dancing and spinning. Bright orange or yellow pouches on their necks swell up like balloons, then deflate, filling the morning with wheezing pops that sound like a bagpipe band warming up. The birds erect feathers on their heads like horns and drum their feet on the ground, pivoting right and left like wind-up toys. The sight of dozens of birds pirouetting and wheezing is definitely in the ooh-aah category.
Early March through mid-May is the time to visit the only lesser prairie-chicken lek accessible on public land. It’s located about 12 miles east of Campo on the Comanche National Grassland. It’s a self-guided tour but reservations are required for the viewing blind, which holds four people. For information, directions and rules, visit the U.S. Forest Service's website. To register for the blind call the Carrizo Ranger District at (719) 523-6591