By Ben Gruber
It is no secret that April in these parts brings thunderstorms, but it might be a secret that central Wisconsin is the last refuge of a native son: the greater prairie chicken. A narrow path of remaining native grassland habitat stretches through Wood and Portage Counties and somewhat into northern Adams and southern Marathon Counties.
The last remaining stronghold of this native bird sits right here in our backyard, and springtime brings its annual stage performance. The males will gather in open areas of the grassland where they partake in an ancient spring ritual called “booming.” Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus is the species’ scientific name, which translates to “Drummer of Love.”
In booming, the spring mating ritual of the prairie chickens, the males will stomp their feet and boom a three-note call. Also, males will fight, squaring off against each other and sparring with wings and feet, with the victors claiming territory and the breeding of the hens that go along with it.
This annual performance is readily viewed through a research program at UW-Stevens Point. The College of Natural Resources there maintains a number of preset viewing blinds. A coordinator manages a list of volunteers who get to staff the blinds and observe the spring booming, and in return the volunteers record their observations and assist the college in its annual prairie chicken census.
The blinds are all in good viewing locations and are generally an easy hike from the nearest road. Volunteers get to see the sun rise over the grasslands and hopefully watch some of the prairie chickens’ spring ritual.
According to its website, the DNR currently manages more than 1,000 acres of grasslands throughout the Buena Vista Grassland area. Mostly made up of scattered parcels throughout an area north of Wisconsin Rapids to Plover, it is an example of private and public partnerships coming together to save a nearly extirpated species.
These birds once inhabited grasslands from coast to coast, but loss of habitat to development and changing agricultural practices have driven them to scattered, small pockets of remaining grassland habitat. Our Wisconsin population is a great success story, likely the eastern-most sustaining population.
Management of the grasslands home to Wisconsin’s prairie chickens uses an interesting and diverse model. Prescribed burning, managed livestock grazing, and sharecropping are done in cooperation between the DNR, local farmers, and private conservation organizations.
The Drummer of Love is a true gem of the Midwest. With just a short drive, you can be seeing and hearing a spring mating ritual that was witnessed by the earliest inhabitants and explorers of this continent. Get out and check it out. The booming will often continue through April.
Ben Gruber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.