The darkness of a pre-dawn moonless night enveloped us. As we sat silently in the New Mexico Game and Fish van, I glimpsed an occasional flash of white. It was 5:20 a.m. and we were waiting to see the mating display of the Lesser Prairie Chicken. I snuggled into my parka to ward off the early morning chill. Every once in a while we would hear a hollow noise.
My friend Barbara and I traveled almost to the Texas border to witness the early morning courtship dance of these amazing birds. The High Plains Prairie-Chicken Festival in Milnesand, tucked along the New Mexico-Texas border 32 miles south of Portales, is a collaborative venture between the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the Nature Conservancy of New Mexico, the Grasslans Charitable Foundation, and the town of Milnesand – population 69.
The Lesser Prairie-Chicken is considered a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Program. Due to the sensitivity of the prairie grassland breeding grounds, the only way to view this spectacular courtship ritual is by being one of the lucky 100 registrants at the festival.
The primary causes of the specie’s decline are over-grazing, conversion of prairie to farmland, over-use of herbicides and oil and gas extraction activities. According to the National Audubon Society, “more than 70% of the current Lesser Prairie-Chicken range is contained within private land holdings.” In New Mexico, as well as the other four states in the Lesser Prairie-Chicken range (Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas), landowners and the government are working together to preserve Prairie-Chicken habitat in a way that will benefit everyone.
The nearest motel rooms were 25 miles away, so we rented rooms from one of the area ranchers. Other participants pitched tents or parked their motor homes adjacent to the Milnesand Community Center.
At the Friday night orientation we had learned that a “lek” is a cleared, raised area the Prairie-Chickens use for their communal display, or courtship behavior, to attract hens for mating. They will pick a suitable location one to two miles from their nesting area. While the display grounds are relatively free of vegetation, and preferably slightly raised, the nesting and brood-rearing area requires dense, tall grasses that grow in clumps.
As it neared 6 a.m. the movement of the chickens became apparent right outside of the van. We realized the glimpses of white we had seen in the earlier darkness were flashes of white tail feathers. Some Prairie Chickens maintain the same territory within a lek over a number of years. Once it was fully light, we were able to count approximately 17 males. They seemed oblivious to the van, as each male defended his territory in the lek.
Before mating, females will visit a number of leks to observe the males. On this morning seven hens were visiting. For a period of time, one hen was scrutinizing two males displaying right outside the van window. She did a do-si-do back and forth between the two dancing males.A displaying male will lean forward, spread its wings slightly, and raise its tail and special neck feathers. The elevated feathers stand straight up on either side of its head, resembling rabbit ears. When raised, they expose red pouches located on both sides of the neck. The pouches inflate, and the bright yellow combs on the top of the head puff out when the Prairie Chicken makes its booming sound. At the same time, it does a little two-step in place that resembles the tiny steps of a flamenco dancer. As two males approach each other, the dominant one will assume the full display behavior. The other one keeps its neck feathers laid back. One of the males near the van, periodically would leap up on a stiff branch of a Shin Oak shrub, and on a couple of occasions, leaped on top of the van. We could hear its two-step on the metal above us. Before long it was light and the show was over.
Back at the community center, we compared notes with those who had visited other leks while we enjoyed a pancake breakfast prepared by community members. We all agreed it had been worth getting up at 4 a.m. to observe this wonderful spectacle. It was an experience we would never forget.