A grouse of the open grassland, the Greater Prairie-Chicken is known for its mating dance, performed by males on flat display sites on shortgrass prairie called leks. Their range extends from northern Oklahoma through the Flinthills and northern Kansas, and on north through the centers of Nebraska and the Dakotas. Sarah Sortum and her brother found their way back to the family ranch in the central Nebraska sandhills by starting an eco-tourism business, allowing bird watchers to see this bird in its mixed-grass home.
This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.
We’re talking about the Greater Prairie-Chicken. And this bird is found from north-central Oklahoma, throughout the Flint Hills and northern Kansas, north through the centers of Nebraska and the Dakotas.
“They are our native game bird. A long time, before we had pheasants, that was the primary bird that folks hunted and one of the major sources of food for our settlers as they were coming out across this country.” That’s Jim Pitman of Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. This grouse of open grassland is considered to be an umbrella species, because they require a native habitat in large quantity, and good quality.
“So, if you have prairie-chickens on your property, there’s a good chance your habitat is fairly close to its historical condition, which is a good thing, not only for wildlife but also for agricultural production.” And, says Jim Pitman, if you have greater prairie chicken on your land, “a lot of the other grassland birds that are in decline will be present as well.”
There’s a family near Burwell, Nebraska, who profess strong feelings about the Greater Prairie Chicken.
“We just love these little birds. And it sounds kind of silly, but we’ve fallen in love, again, with home.” Meet Sarah Sortum. Her family owns a huge ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills. Besides conventional ranching, they run an ecotourism operation called Calamus Outfitters, that provides lodging, tours and education for people who want to come out to grass country to animal- and bird-watch. Their rolling grassland has a number of Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chicken leks.
What is a lek? Think of a nightclub for birds — the males putting on a showy dance! “The males congregate at display sites in the spring and try to attract the females. They come back to the same sites about every year. At the peak of breeding, when the hens are in attendance on the leks, usually the first part of April, once those hens get bred they then usually nest within a couple miles of the lek site.”
“When we started to pinpoint where our leks were and learn about the lifecycle and habits of these birds, that just turned our management around because we started to understand where they spend their life on the ground, so what type of habitat we need to supply for them. And, once we figured all that out, things just started to fall into place.”
Sarah Sortum says the ecotourism business has made her family better ranchers. “Look,” she says, “we started the ecotourism business purely for economic reasons.” They needed another revenue stream to stay on the land. “However, what happened was we got these bird watchers that really started to educate us about birds. We did not realize the peril that grassland birds, as a category, are in. But once we understood the serious decline that they’re in, and then the reasons and factors behind that, we became very concerned. We do make our living off of the land, but it’s only because the land is healthy that allows us to be here. And to have a healthy landscape, you need that complete, complex diversity of plant and animal life. So we feel very passionate that everything that’s supposed to be here should be here. And that’s how we keep the land healthy, and that’s how we make our living off of it.”
Our thanks to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, in Ithaca New York, for the featured bird song. Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. Made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures.
Original broadcast: October 2013