South Dakota’s ‘hidden gems’: Prairie chickens and grouse

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO)– Pheasants may be one of the faces of South Dakota, but there are other birds that also call the area home.

Josh Delger, Regional Wildlife Supervisor for Game, Fish and Parks, says there are a few different species of prairie grouse in the state: Sharp-tail grouse and Great sage-grouse; along with one species of prairie chickens, the Greater Prairie Chicken.

“It’s very cool, very cool to see them,” Delger said. “A lot of people don’t see them, and even though they exist.”

In the annual survey of prairie grouse conducted by the USDA Forest Service staff on the Fort Pierre National Grassland, they found 655 male greater prairie chickens, which was the highest population found since systematic surveys began in the late 1980s. This is compared to 479 males counted in 2020.

According to the University of Nebraska Lincoln, millions of greater prairie chickens once inhabited the prairies throughout the Midwest. However in the late 1800s and early 1900s, their numbers were so high that “chicken hunting culture” was created. The loss of habitat was the biggest contributing factor to the bird’s decline; however, hunting was another factor.

The “dance”

The “dancing” that observers witness is called a breeding lek. UNL defines a lek as a relatively small area where a group of males gather to engage in competitive displays for the benefit of females who survey potential breeding partners.

In video captured by KELOLAND News Chief Photographer Kevin Kjergaard, you see the prairie chickens on their breeding leks, Delger says. This is when they fight and dance for the attention of females, hoping to gain the right to breed and pass on their genes. He says it is something that you don’t see with any other bird in the country.

The springtime mating ritual will be featured on CBS Sunday Morning this week. Watch for video shot by Kjergaard on the show on KELO-TV this Sunday.

UNL says greater prairie chickens generally mate in mid-to-late April on mornings with low wind speeds. They say that most males return to the same leks year after year.

About three-fourths of all leks can be found on sub irrigated sites where the vegetation has been kept short by haying or grazing practices, which makes it easier for females to see the display.

You can find them on certain private properties for sure, Delger says, but also on public land. A popular area to see them is the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.

Management tips for land where leks occur

These are UNL’s tips for land management for leks:

  • Keep vegetation short-cropped by haying or heavy grazing.
  • Avoid daily disturbances to the lek.
  • Ecotourism operations should take care to have guests arrive at blinds before dawn; people exiting the blind should minimize disturbance.
  • Consider removing large trees or poles in the immediate vicinity of the lek if predators commonly harass the booming birds.
  • Maintain quality nesting habitats, especially near leks, for females to have a nearby nesting area.

Considering brooding sites

UNL says while it is hard to control predators and impossible to control the weather conditions on your property, you can implement these techniques for maintaining brood-rearing sites to help increase chick survival and the bird’s populations.

In a successful nest, UNL says the eggs hatch around the second week in June. After the last egg hatches, the hen will leave the nest and travel with her chicks to feed on seeds and insects.

They say the most common causes of death among the chicks is starvation, chilling and predation. The hens adapt by choosing brooding sites with dense vegetation providing shelter from the sun and predators, while being thin enough to allow the chicks to move.

Monitoring prairie chicken populations

UNL says that prairie chicken populations should be checked at least once a year to see if there are changes; the easiest way to do this is during each lek.

Here are some of the techniques they recommend keeping in mind:

  • The number of males on a lek varies each day during the spring, so you should count males during early April because male numbers on leks are generally more stable from mid-March to mid-April.
  • Spend one morning (daybreak to 9 a.m.) listening for new leks and confirming leks from previous years that are still active.
  • If all leks are located well before 9 a.m., return to each lek that morning to count males, or return the next morning.
  • When counting males, use binoculars or spotting scopes from 200-300 yards away.
  • At the end of your observations, walk closer to the lek and flush the birds to double check your count. Soon after you leave, the birds will return.

Seeing prairie grouse

“If people are really interested in seeing them, we would like to encourage you to contact the Fort Pierre National Grasslands office and get contact with them. They actually have blinds set up for people to come and watch,” Delger said.

Fort Pierre Ranger District’s has a prairie grouse viewing blind program. There are three blinds available now through May 15 with no cost to reserve.

He said they encourage visitors not to go out on their own because you can disturb the leks, which can hurt the bird population. If you get in contact with the Game, Fish and Parks and you can schedule a time to go see the birds for yourself.

The hunting season

There is a hunting season for sharp-tail grouse and greater prairie chickens, collectively referred to as prairie grouse. It begins on September 18, 2021 and January 2, 2022 and is statewide.

Delger says pheasants seem to get the bulk of the attention, but prairie grouse are thought of as the “hidden gems” out there.

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