Booming birds face bust times

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Jul 20, 2006
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They gather on prairie ridges while most of us are still asleep, humming a haunting three-note song that carries for miles in the pre-dawn stillness. Orange air sacs rise and fall in their necks as male greater prairie chickens begin their ancient dance. They stomp, cackle and woo. The female prairie chickens seem unimpressed. But eventually, they acquiesce. Then it's over, and the hens are off to lay the eggs that hold future generations. Those future generations are a question mark, though.

Once billed the "Prairie Chicken Capital of the World," the Flint Hills now hold dwindling numbers of the birds. In three decades, the population has dropped almost 90 percent on the area's eastern edge and 50 percent in the rest of the Flint Hills, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks studies show.

"Prairie chickens are right at the top of our list for species we're concerned about," said Ron Manes of the Nature Conservancy of Kansas. "They are an excellent indicator of the health of the prairie."

If the prairie chickens are in trouble, other prairie birds also are in trouble, wildlife biologists say. The chickens' decline can start a domino-like fall, cascading toward the eastern meadowlark, Henslow's sparrows, grasshopper sparrows and others.

Prairie chickens require open prairie and tall grass to nest. Annual prairie burning, close grazing, invasive trees and the encroachment of civilization all are factors in their decline in the Flint Hills, biologists say.


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