Wrapping up the AFO conference in Kearney, Ms. Ma and I met up with Pam Hunt and Becky Suomala (and a gentleman whose name I’ve forgotten) for a Greater Prairie-Chicken search. The GPCH is currently something of a specialty bird, existing in small pockets across the central US, but just a couple hundred years ago they lived throughout the Midwest from central Canada to Mexico. A subspecies known as the Heath Hen even lived on the east coast from New Hampshire to Virginia.
GPCH require healthy prairies, so habitat loss has obviously been a big factor in their decline. Market hunters also did their fair share of damage to the birds. Heath Hens had been incredibly common in the east, and household servants would be fed so much of the stuff that they began stipulating tolerable limits in their contracts. Eventually, of course, the population crashed. Heath Hens were one of the first birds to get legal protection in the late 18th century, and a legitimate conservation effort was made by the creation of a preserve in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, the effort put all of the chickens in one basket, as it were, and a fire nearly wiped the remaining birds out. After that, it was a slow but steady decline. Martha’s Vineyard hosted the final population until 1932, when that went extinct. Interestingly, birds from the other subspecies of GPCH were repeatedly introduced into former Heath Hen habitat, but they never became established and a gap remains in those ecosystems to this day.
My personal pet-theory, and let me know if anybody with any sort of credentials has studied this before, is that Heath Hens used to keep the ticks down. The GPCH chicks of today eat a diet consisting of mostly insects. Heath Hens probably had similar diets, and the spring tick boom, as with all the insects, would have been timed well for their nestlings. Ticks are also ground-dwellers, so it would seem rather obvious that they would be among the most available food choices for ground-dwelling birds such as the Heath Hen. With the current tick problems being faced in the northeast, isn’t it time to consider cloning the Heath Hen?
Anyway, we found our GPCHs on the lek. A lek is a group of males that comes together each spring for the purpose of competitive mating displays. Although many of the details are still under scientific examination, essentially the males show up, puff out their breasts, make drumming noises, and jump around. Females stand off to the side and evaluate the mating displays before choosing a mate and beginning the reproductive process. It is during this interesting ritual that grouse are most easily seen, as they are otherwise very well camouflaged and quiet.
Other photos below illustrate the mixture of geese present in Nebraska in early spring, more cranes, some raptors, and some interesting images of Red-winged Blackbirds with deformed bills.
After the conference in Nebraska, I Jenn and I drove up to Omaha and flew opposite directions. I flew in to Salt Lake and she returned to New York. Finally, in Arizona, Anne and I began our new life in the west…