Prairie chickens draw crowds

A male prairie chicken performs part of his elaborate mating dance Saturday morning at the fourth annual High Plains Prairie Chicken Festival in Milnesand. (CNJ staff photo: Ryn Gargulinski)

By Ryn Gargulinski: CNJ staff writer

MILNESAND — More than 100 people flocked from as far as Massachusetts and as close as Clovis this weekend to attend the fourth annual High Plains Prairie Chicken Festival.

The highlight of the weekend is the lesser prairie chicken’s mating ritual. Right before the springtime sunrise, male prairie chickens congregate on raised semi-clearings called “leks.” Here they puff their feathers, their pinnate and their bright red cheeks, as they spar, stomp and scratch to woo the female. The male’s mating “booming” cry can be heard up to a mile away.

“I love watching interesting behavior,” said Cathy Pasterczyk, an avid bird watcher from Albuquerque attending the festival for her second time. “I would come even though I am not a ‘birder,’” added friend, Fred Robinson, “because the people are so sincere.”

The event allows strangers to become friends, the small town 30 miles south of Portales to prove their community spirit, and yes — for the chickens to strut their stuff.

“This festival gives us the chance to bridge the gap between the conservationists and the ranchers,” said Patty Mohon, an event organizer, mother of four and wife of the Milnesand fire chief.

“Good ranching and range management practices are compatible with prairie-chicken habitat conservation,” said Clovis native Patrick Lyons, who served three terms as a state senator and is currently the Commissioner of Public Lands. For three years running, he has helped insured funds to maintain the land and is considering targeting funding for ranchers who lease and manage lands deemed Prairie Chicken Areas (PCA).

Ranchers Ray and Shirl Creamer are just one example of ranchers who have sold their land to the Nature Conservancy yet continue to maintain and manage the PCA. It’s not unusual for them to find prairie chickens roosting on their doorstep or roof or playing in their yard. Neither is it unusual for them to open their doors — and hearts — to complete strangers who may bunk on their property. “You meet the nicest people,” said Shirl Creamer, “who become lifelong friends.”

Jim Weaver, another rancher and semi-retired biologist who plays an integral role in prairie-chicken conservation, also had a full house. Other open-hearted ranchers include Bob King, Orbrie Luman and Wiley Teel and his wife Barbara, the latter whom owns and operates the Kountry Junction store.

“I’m not in it for the money,” laughs Barbara, who also serves as postmaster of Milnesand — complete with a one-day prairie-chicken validation stamp. “I’m in it for the fun.”

“I just hope I can make someone’s day,” she added while showcasing a mounted prairie chicken named Rocco while handing out free Kountry Junction pens and fly swatters.

Other activities and outings over the weekend include the Native American chicken dance, arrowhead making, prairie dog ecology, plants of eastern New Mexico, bird watching and a comprehensive range management tour headed by Wildlife and Range Management Consultant Charles Dixon.

Not only does Dixon point out the varieties and methods used on the grasslands, he includes a look at the lizards and badgers, stories of skinks and snakes, and an up-close gaze at a unique type of cattle from the Zimbabwe — the American Mishona — which also happened to be on the lunch menu.

In the Milnesand manner, special dietary requirements were honored.

“We just want everyone to be happy,” said Mohon, serving up a veggie burger and lentils for a confirmed vegetarian. Mohon is one of the dozens of community members, Nature Conservancy associates, plant and animal specialists and everyday people who band together each year to insure the festival — and the prairie-chickens — have a home.