The mating game: Prairie chicken known for colorful ritual

A male lesser prairie chicken used the rock he’s on top of as part of his mating display Saturday. A hen checks him out in the background. (Freedom Newspapers: Karl Terry)

By Karl Terry: Freedom Newspapers

A crescent moon shines above the pre-dawn eastern horizon as a passenger van pulls to a stop on a lonely ranch road near Milnesand.

Inside are people from various parts of New Mexico and Texas who sacrificed a few hours of sleep to witness one of the stranger wonders of nature — the mating dance of the lesser prairie chicken during the sixth annual High Plains Prairie Chicken Festival.

Soon the eerie mating call, or boom, of the prairie chickens is heard and the van is maneuvered into a viewing position overlooking the lek (traditional mating ground).

Several male prairie chickens are strutting with feathers ruffled, including sets of feathers that look like ears above their yellow heads. They’re also periodically inflating bright red cheek sacs to produce the call and hopping into the air.

Kathy Jarrett of Abiquiu said she likes to bird watch but doesn’t consider herself a hard-core birder.

“I’ve just never seen the prairie chicken in the wild,” Jarrett said. “So I wanted to get out and see them.”

Gary and Karen Schiltz of Pecos were taking the festival a little more seriously. The couple consider themselves avid birders, even traveling to Ecuador to bird watch. They had seen the greater prairie chicken of the Kansas plains, but wanted to get the lesser prairie chicken on their birding life list.

The couple utilized one of the festivals blinds for photographers and took both still and video shots.

“It was good to see the birds up so close and hear them,” said Karen Schiltz, an artist who paints birds.

“You could even hear them stamp their feet, we were so close,” chimes in her husband.

Karen Schiltz said prairie habitats seem to be one of the niches most overlooked by nature lovers.

“It’s a shame more people don’t know about prairie heritage,” she said. “This was sort of a different look at shortgrass prairie. I’d never been on it before.”

For Brandon and Douna Young the festival was a chance to get into nature and do something different. Douna grew up in Odessa, Texas, and is studying to be a wildlife biologist at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas.

“That was beautiful watching them do their displays,” Douna said.

After the early morning viewing of the prairie chickens, the group was welcomed back to the Milnesand Community Center with stacks of pancakes, bacon and hot coffee served by the people of Milnesand, including members of the local volunteer fire department.

“I think this means a lot of pride,” said Barbara Teel, who runs the store and post office in Milnesand, when asked what was important about the festival for locals. “We’re good people and we like to share that love.”

After breakfast various ecology field trips were offered, including bird watching, prairie dog viewing, archaeology and plants and soils.

Author and naturalist Pete Dunne, considered to be one of the nation’s top birding experts, gave a humorous talk following lunch while teaching the crowd the finer points of pishing (imitation of a bird’s call, particularly scolding calls, to attract other birds).