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'Quite the drama' unfolds every spring on the prairie chicken booming grounds

Apr 28, 2019 10:11AM ● By Editor
Male prairie chickens battle on the booming grounds. Photo:  Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

By Brad Dokken of the Grand Forks Herald - April 28, 2019

POLK COUNTY, Minn.—For some reason, the male prairie chicken occupying center stage was more appealing to the half-dozen hens gathered nearby than the other males, who found themselves on the perimeter of the booming grounds.

Try as they might, stomping their tiny prairie chicken feet with heads down and booming away with orange air sacs inflated in full splendor, the other male chickens couldn't compete with the star in the center.

"Brad Pitt of the Booming Grounds," Dan Svedarsky called him, in reference to the renowned movie actor. The hens definitely found him to their liking.

Male prairie chickens gather on the booming grounds, or leks, as early as late March in hopes of attracting females, and the mating displays can continue into June. Polk County has at least 40 leks scattered around the prairie landscape, said Svedarsky, a wildlife biologist and prairie chicken researcher who retired in 2018 after a 49-year teaching career at the University of Minnesota-Crookston.

"I've even heard a little booming in July," Svedarsky said, "because there will be some females that will come back to the booming grounds to remate if they've lost their nests."

In one of the grandest dramas the prairie has to offer, more than a dozen male prairie chickens were booming away Wednesday morning on the Pankratz Memorial Prairie, a piece of land owned by The Nature Conservancy.

Male prairie chickens produce the sound by inflating air sacs on their necks. The sound is transmitted through the sacs without the birds opening their mouths, Svedarsky says, and can be heard up to 3 miles away.

The booming sound has a "ventriloquial effect", he says, seeming to come from nowhere and everywhere at once.

"They're here for a couple hours, sometimes three hours in the morning, and then at the end of the afternoon," Svedarsky said. "It's all about leaving their genes behind and mating with the females."

It's serious business, this booming, and the chickens on this perfect April morning were so intent on the business at hand, they paid no attention to the 4½-by-16-foot blind Svedarsky built a few years ago on top of a flatbed trailer.

"Taj Ma Chicken," he calls it, and the deluxe blind can hold up to 24 people for an up-close-and-personal view of the prairie proceedings. Catching the show requires being in the blind well before daylight, but it's definitely worth a few hours of lost sleep.

The Brad Pitt of the Booming Grounds obviously thought so, too.

"That male out in the center of all those females, he will probably account for 80 percent of the mating that will take place on this ground," Svedarsky said. "And what it is that makes the females decide on him as the special guy, I don't know for sure."

Holding their own

Prairie chickens continue to hold their own in the grassland areas of western Minnesota, and the population stands at 2,000 birds or so, said Svedarsky, who conducts booming ground surveys in the Polk County area for the Department of Natural Resources.

This year, the numbers appear to be down, Svedarsky says, perhaps as much as 40 percent.

For more information on prairie chicken viewing opportunities, check out the Crookston Area Chamber and Visitor's Bureau website at or call (218) 281-4320.

To read more of the original article, watch a video from the booming grounds and see related outdoors reporting, follow this link to the Grand Forks Herald website.

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