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A male greater prairie chicken performs at the Bluestem Prairie in an attempt to attract females. Keith Corliss/The Pioneer

Flight Lines: Wildlife spectacle of prairie chickens just a quick phone call away

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Right off the top of my head, I can think of five avian species that have become extinct north of Mexico since Europeans first stepped ashore in the New World. One is known by nearly everyone and became the storied, yet chilling, icon representing just what we as a people are capable of - the passenger pigeon. The other four are less known and numbered far fewer individuals to begin with.

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The Carolina parakeet was the only member of the parrot family known to nest north of Mexico. By the 1920s this bird was gone. The Labrador duck was a sea bird that wintered on New England's coast. The last known specimen was shot in 1875. The ivory-billed woodpecker sighting, which caused the stir a few years ago in Arkansas, has yet to be positively verified. Searching continues but odds are the bird is extinct. The fifth bird was known as the heath hen. It occupied a large area of the Northeast but was easy to hunt so readily fed a pioneering population of early Americans. The last heath hen died on Martha's Vineyard in 1932.

But the story of the heath hen's demise is not entirely ended. It was considered a subspecies of the greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido), so technically the bird is still around, or the greater share of its DNA is.

Greater prairie chickens actually thrived for a time across much of North Dakota in the wake of settlement. Early farming practices, the demise of the bison, and fire suppression all contrived to create a tallgrass prairie-like chicken habitat and populations boomed. Eventually, intensive agriculture arrived and the bird disappeared from most of its newfound range. It's now confined to pockets of habitat scattered across a few northern plains states. In North Dakota the birds are found almost exclusively in the Sheyenne National Grasslands and west of Grand Forks in the Kelly Slough National Wildlife Refuge.

Greater prairie chickens are members of the grouse family which claim about a dozen species north of Mexico. All are mostly ground dwellers, sharing traits such as short, strong bills and short, rounded wings on which the birds carry out rapid but relatively short flights.

Another common characteristic is an elaborate mating ritual. Forest birds, such as ruffed grouse, do this singularly. But prairie grouse have evolved to gather socially in courtship displays worthy of "Dancing with the Stars." Starting in early spring, males of the species strut, puff, feint, and cluck on a piece of ground called a lek, or arena. Often these booming grounds are used year after year. "The one by our office has been used for over 20 years," said Matt Mecklenburg, field steward/fire boss at The Nature Conservancy's Bluestem Prairie office near Glyndon.

Dominant males occupy the middle of the dance floor while younger ones are confined to the outer reaches. The ritual, as one may surmise, determines which males get to mate with the females.

It goes like this, in the case of the greater prairie chicken: A male drums the ground rapidly with its feet, erects pinnate feathers high above its head, fans its tail and wings, displays bright orange combs (eyebrows), and inflates yellow-orange air sacs in its neck; all the while issuing an eerie, hollow, ghost-like "oooo-OOOOh" sound similar to blowing air across the top of a bottle. It's quite the spectacle and worth checking out if you haven't witnessed it firsthand.

The opportunity to view this annual exhibition is as close as Glyndon, where The Nature Conservancy manages certain portions of the Lake Agassiz beach ridge for prairie preservation. Viewing blinds are set up every spring for the public's use on a reservation basis.

"We manage the properties for species diversity using tools like prescribed fire and brush reduction," said Mecklenburg. As a result, the land maintains a rich mixture of grasses and forbs which invites a varied roster of plant and animal species - some quite rare - to thrive, including greater prairie chickens.

TNC's blinds will stay in place for another few weeks, so the chance to make a reservation still stands. Spots fill up early so I'd make a call today if I was thinking about it. It's one of the few locations worldwide where you can witness the ancient choreographed ceremony of what Mecklenburg calls "a special species."

The phone number for prairie chicken viewing blind reservations is: 218-498-2679.

Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder, and ND Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for Forum Communications. kcorliss@forumcomm.com.

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