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The Booming Grounds
Apr 16, 2012
I never liked chickens all that much. Live chickens, that is. I’ll happily dine at KFC when the mood takes me, and what would breakfast be without eggs scrambled or over easy? What I mean is that the chicken coop doesn’t bring up very good memories for me. First of all, I was deathly scared of one of the meanest creatures on earth: the cackling hen sitting atop her clutch of eggs. I seem to remember beaks like curved scimitars awaiting my outstretched hands as I reached for those eggs. Of course, a seven-year-old’s imagination tends to greatly exaggerate reality as I can’t ever remember getting pecked. As I grew older, the dreaded chore of cleaning the coop was added to my resume. There are not a lot things that smell worse than a ripe chicken coop on a hot summer’s day. I’ll kindly spare you the details.
Why this reminiscing about chickens? Well, I did something early in April that I have never done before and it involved chickens in the wild. Greater Prairie Chickens to be exact. The good folks that manage Fort Pierre National Grasslands set up three blinds during April and May to view the “booming grounds” or “leks” that the prairie chickens use to dance and woo their wily hens. Sharp-tailed grouse also use the high flat areas in the grasslands to display and attract mates. I recently got a new telephoto lens and thought this would be a perfect opportunity to try it out. I wasn’t disappointed.
As the sun came up, the sounds of the roosters scuffling, dancing and “booming” filled the air already accented by the happy song of the meadowlark. It truly is one of nature’s wonders that everyone in the state should experience in real life. Don’t believe me? The dance of the prairie chicken has inspired the “chicken dance” in Native American culture. The dance also has some really interesting stories associated with it. In one of the stories attributed to a Crow legend, Old Man Coyote created the prairie chicken to show the rest of the animals how to dance. A Blackfoot legend tells of a hungry hunter who kills and eats some prairie chickens only to have the birds’ spirit return to him in a dream to tell him he must learn the chicken dance or he would be killed by the angry spirits of the chickens he murdered. The story I like the best is how a warrior was out hunting on a foggy morning and climbed to the top of a hill to wait until the fog lifted. He soon fell asleep. When he woke up he was surrounded by dancing prairie chickens. He watched and learned the dance and taught it to his tribe.
Our family friend and photographer, Stu Surma, who now resides in Java, SD told me of his experience shooting photos of the sharp-tail dancers on a lek near Isabel when a coyote jumped the party looking for breakfast. Stu told me that he was quite annoyed with the coyote and wished he had a rifle handy. The closest thing I saw to that kind of drama was a large hawk flying low over the lek on the second morning I was in the blind. All the grouse and half the prairie chickens scattered. Within the next 10 minutes all were back and dancing again. Not to say there isn’t drama to the dance. The males carve out their little areas and when they aren’t dancing, they are squabbling over the borders with their neighbors. What was really interesting was that the grouse and chickens who share the same leks fight like this as well. I witnessed a grouse defend his ground all morning against prairie chickens larger than him. I nicknamed him Little Jerry from one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes and found myself cheering him on silently. When Little Jerry and the rest of the crew flew off at about 9 a.m., the show was over. But what a show it was. Was it wrong that I enjoyed fried chicken for dinner later that day?
If you are interested in reserving one of the blinds, you can call the Fort Pierre National Grassland Office at 605-224-5517 to set up your reservation and receive information regarding grouse blinds and maps showing the location of your reserved blind.
If you can't make it to the National Grassland in person, have a look at Christian's video of the prairie chickens in action.
Christian Begeman grew up in Isabel and now lives in Sioux Falls. When he's not working at Midcontinent Communications he is often on the road photographing our prettiest spots around the state. Follow Begeman on his blog.