At the Jasper County Prairie Chicken Sanctuary, which is a little over 200 miles south of Chicago, 20 miles southeast of Effingham, and just northeast of the tiny town of Bogota, in the former redtop farming capital of the world, Scott Simpson is trying to save the last of Illinois’ prairie chickens. Prairie chickens are a fussy species, and that makes the effort to save them a matter of some subtlety. For Simpson, the manager of the sanctuary, it’s a full-time job.
I met Simpson at 4:15 AM on April 1 of this year at the Grassland Wildlife Ecology Lab–a large, yellow metal shed on sanctuary land that often has several green Department of Conservation pickup trucks parked out front. It contains, among other things, Simpson’s office. He is as accustomed to rising at this early hour as I am unaccustomed, and when I met him, bleary-eyed from my nighttime drive, he was chipper and almost annoyingly awake.
Simpson, a bearded and enthusiastic native of nearby Casey, first visited the Jasper County Prairie Chicken Sanctuary in 1979, when he was a student in a class on upland game birds at Southern Illinois University. One morning his class visited the sanctuary before dawn to witness from blinds the prairie chickens’ mating ritual. It was the first time he had seen the birds in the wild, and Simpson was hooked. While working on his master’s degree in zoology at SIU, he spent four summers working at the sanctuary, tramping the fields conducting nest surveys and otherwise helping to research the lives of prairie chickens. After his graduation in 1984, he applied for a full-time job with the Department of Conservation.
As luck would have it, the Department of Conservation was just then looking for a scientist to manage both of its prairie chicken sanctuaries: one in Jasper County and the other near Kinmundy in Marion County, about 40 miles to the southwest. Simpson got the job and began work in the spring of 1985.
At that time there were less than 200 prairie chickens remaining in Illinois, the latest milestone in a century-long saga of decline. Simpson recited more numbers to me early on the morning of April 1, as we waited in the ecology lab for the dawn. In 1912, he said, 92 of the 102 counties in Illinois still had prairie chicken populations. By 1962, the total population had dropped to some 2,000 birds, concentrated in south central Illinois. By the spring of 1989, there were less than 100 birds left.
That they had survived so long in south central Illinois had little to do with the birds’ original prairie habitat. Here, as elsewhere in Illinois, the prairie quickly fell victim to the plow. By 1912, the 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie that had covered Illinois before white settlement had been reduced to a bare million. Today vestiges of that biome can be found in Jasper and Marion counties in old cemeteries, along unmowed railroad rights-of-way, and in other forgotten patches–but those patches have generally been too small to support a flock of prairie chickens.
What saved the birds was redtop. An imported European grass widely sold for seed, redtop became a major crop in south central Illinois in the 1870s. By the 1930s, 95 percent of the redtop seed sold in the United States was grown in 12 Illinois counties, in a band that stretched southwest from Jasper County. The soil there is less fertile than the richer prairie loam farther north and west; it is too acidic to produce good yields of the corn or soybeans that were such lucrative cash crops elsewhere in Illinois. But redtop grew well.
Prairie chickens survived in the redtop district after they had been eradicated elsewhere in the state. “The really important thing about the redtop,” Simpson told me, “the reason it provides such good nesting cover, is the lateness of the harvest, which takes place around the third week of July. So the female prairie chicken has time to lay her eggs and raise her chicks, and they’re old enough by that time to get away from the combine. That’s basically the reason why they persisted in Illinois. It served as a substitute prairie.”
In the 1940s, though, several factors converged to reduce the habitat suitable for prairie chicken nesting. Wartime demand for increased food production induced many farmers to plow up the uncultivated grassy or weedy fields that the chickens had favored in addition to the redtop. And after the war, redtop production declined sharply. New chemical fertilizers and mechanized farming practices meant that even the infertile soil of the redtop district could sustain corn and soybeans. In 1940, 305,000 acres of Illinois redtop were harvested for seed; by 1950, 70,000 acres; by 1960, only 20,000 acres. Much of the acreage that had supported redtop was planted with soybeans–which provide less cover for chickens–or clover, which is combined for hay in May or June, with concomitant destruction of most nests.
Prairie chicken habitat shrank precipitously. Beginning in 1936, Ralph Yeatter of the Illinois Natural History Survey conducted a yearly census of chickens on a tract of land roughly 15 miles northeast of the present-day Jasper County sanctuary. He based his census on the number of breeding males, a figure easy to establish. Their numbers fluctuated widely, but there was no mistaking the general trend: 76 in 1935, 131 in 1939, 90 in 1946, 46 in 1953, 30 in 1960, 4 in 1963. Yeatter wrote, “After the war, the amount of relatively safe nesting cover on and near the study area was manifestly too limited to maintain the relatively high prairie chicken population of the early years of the study period. Since 1946, the population trend . . . has resembled a holding operation, with populations dropping to lower and lower plateaus, apparently indicative both of a generally deteriorating farm environment and of temporary adjustments of the prairie chickens on and near the study area to the available nest-brood cover.” In the spring of 1968, the annual census found only a single prairie chicken in the area, and it was not seen again.
Today redtop is still cultivated in Jasper and neighboring counties. In Wayne County, to the south, farmers have reaped yields of 300 pounds of redtop seed per acre; though its value varies widely, the seed has sold in past years for roughly $2 a pound. Even after deducting maybe $100 per acre for the costs of fertilizer (intensively applied) and pesticides, such a crop can net the farmer a bigger profit than corn or soybeans. There’s a certain demand for the seed these days in Appalachia, largely because of federal laws that require coal-mining operations to reclaim land denuded by strip-mining. Thus do the fruits of Illinois benefit Kentucky and West Virginia; but the farmers who produce the seed do little for Illinois wildlife, for the crop is farmed so intensively, with the grass stems growing so close together, that even prairie chickens feel cramped.
Redtop is also grown on the Jasper County Prairie Chicken Sanctuary, but in a more relaxed way; seed yields average only about 75 pounds per acre. The local farmers who combine the crop get two-thirds of the yield, and instead of plowing under the grass stubble they leave it standing. The stubble provides excellent cover for the birds and other wildlife through the winter and until the next year’s growth begins. Timothy, another imported grass often grown for hay, serves the same purpose at the sanctuary.
The greater prairie chicken, Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus, a dumpy-looking bird, has been known by many names: prairie chicken, pinnated grouse, boomer, prairie grouse, heath hen. A member of the grouse family, it typically grows to a length of 14 inches and a weight of roughly two pounds. It is a larger cousin to the lesser prairie chicken, an inhabitant of the shortgrass plains farther to the west; and it is related to the endangered Attwater’s prairie chicken, of which only about 1,000 remain on the coastal plains of Texas, and the extinct eastern heath hen, which existed on the east coast until the 1930s.
The greater prairie chicken’s feathers are brown, banded with white; the rounded and stubby tail is rimmed with black. Above each eye male birds have a small orange strip, or comb. The cocks also have tufts of feathers several inches long at the base of their neck, which are known as pinnae; usually pressed flat, the pinnae are extended during courtship. Below the pinnae are two orange patches perhaps two inches long, which are inflated with air when the pinnae are erect. Hens are plainer: they lack the combs and air sacs. The birds have a diet of grains and insects.
Eliza Farnham, a New Yorker, moved to Tazewell County, Illinois, in 1836 and lived for four and a half years on the prairie, writing a partly fictionalized book about her experiences called Life in Prairie Land. (She would later write Woman and Her Era, thus becoming a pioneer feminist in at least two senses.) She wrote of the prairie chicken: “He is a large, mottled grey bird, with a heavy ruff of feathers running over his head, which adds much to the watchfulness and timidity of his appearance. Their nests are built on the open prairie in some thick knot of grass. This bird has no proper song, and is in general a very silent inhabitant of these vast plains. When hunted or overtaken by the traveler, they rise suddenly with a whirr, somewhat similar to, but not so distinct as that of the pheasant, and fly very rapidly. If not disturbed they describe the half of an ellipse between the points of rising and alighting. The strokes of the wing are short and rapid, and the flight is very swift and direct. These fowls are rarely heard to utter any noise except at one chosen hour of the day. On a spring morning before sunrise, if you are in the vicinity where grove and prairie meet, the air resounds with a peculiar noise, between the whistle of the quail and the hoarse blowing of the night-hawk, but louder than either. You inquire what it is, and are told it is the prairie cocks greeting the opening day.”
Biologists, a more literal if less romantic strain, will tell you that the “booming” of the prairie cocks has more to do with greeting the prairie hens than with greeting the opening day. The booming, in fact, is part of an elaborate mating ritual that is one of the most spectacular natural sights in the midwest.
It begins in March, when the cocks commence congregating before dawn on what are known as the booming grounds. The booming ground is an open field often, but not always, slightly higher than the surrounding terrain. The main requirement seems to be that the grass or other foliage be short enough that the birds are not hidden. They are here to show off.
Before the hens ever show up, the cocks fight. They posture at one another, raising their short tails, sticking out their wings, lowering their heads, inflating their air sacs, extending their pinnae. They make a whooping or booming noise not unlike the sound made by blowing over the mouth of an empty soda bottle. At times they leap into the air for a few feet, claws extended toward their rival, a maneuver known as flutter-jumping. Rarely, they scratch one another. The result of these battles, continued day after day as the sun reaches its vernal equinox, is that the dominant cocks establish territories at the center of the booming ground, leaving the areas on the periphery to younger or less aggressive males.
All of which matters little until the hens arrive–usually toward the end of March. They appear shyly at the edges of the booming ground, diffidently pecking at grasses, seemingly interested in everything but the displays of the males. The males, excited by the presence of the hens, perform with enthusiasm, stamping their feet and booming at the female birds. A hen will generally spend several days at the booming ground, observing, before she is ready to mate. One morning she walks to a central territory defended by a dominant male and droops her wings; the actual mating generally occurs then, taking far less time than the courtship. Soon after, the hen builds a nest of duff in the shelter of tall grasses near the booming ground and lays a clutch of perhaps a dozen eggs. Often, the courtship performance is repeated in the early evening.
The booming of prairie chickens can be heard a long way off–something that makes Simpson’s job easier, because he can figure out how many breeding males there are on the Jasper County sanctuary by driving along the grid of section roads, spaced one mile apart, stopping periodically, and listening. That tells him how many booming grounds are in use–this year, there were two. Then by counting how many males are booming, he can estimate the total population.
Shortly before five Simpson and I stepped into a big green pickup and traveled a mile west and a half-mile north to a grassy road that penetrates the open fields to the west. We walked up the lane, over grasses crusted with frost, skidding into puddles thinly sheathed with ice. After several hundred yards, we reached the edge of a long rectangular field; in the semidarkness I could see grasses a few inches high. We stopped next to a pile of what looked like plywood. Simpson proceeded to yank on this pile, folded a few sections of plywood upward, linked some hooks and eyes, and magically created a tiny but serviceable blind. A small wooden bench materialized from among the grasses; Simpson lifted the cloth rear panel, and we slipped inside.
It was a tight squeeze, but not uncomfortable. The blind smelled a little mousy, but I had a fine view through two oval holes just big enough for the business end of my binoculars, one in front of me and one to my right. I looked straight ahead, and saw the booming ground directly in front of us, then fields covered with higher growth, then two high smokestacks whose two rings of flashing white lights competed in intensity with the reddening sky. They belong to the Central Illinois Public Service Company power plant, a few miles to the west. An hour before, in the darkness, the lights had been positively stroboscopic. The metronomic rhythm of oil-well pumps was a further reminder that this is a nature preserve for animals, not people. “We’re managing it strictly for prairie species,” said Simpson; aesthetic sensibilities are secondary to the requirements of the chickens.
The sky was lightening, and I was thinking about a hunter’s toddy of hot, strong black coffee mixed with bourbon, when a large and swift bird plunged onto the field before us, much more quickly than I had imagined. Then another, and another. They are prairie chickens, said Simpson; but it was too dark still to see whether they were cocks or hens. They minced about, cackling with voices almost human. But in a few minutes one of them whooped and dropped into display posture. It jumped into the air, slapping its wings at one of the others; and we knew then that it at least was a cock. It and one of the other birds flew off toward the west, and soon after we heard whooping from that direction.
The whooping of prairie chickens is an eerie sound, a whoo-hoo-hoo low enough in tone to remind me of elephants. In semidarkness, it is poignant; in still weather, it carries for several miles. In Where the Sky Began, John Madson wrote: “Many things can be said of prairie chicken noise, but by no measure is it a comforting, civilized sound. It is a lonely, wild sound made by a lonely wild bird. It has the quality of an ancient wind blowing across the smokeflap of a wickiup–companion noise to an Indian courting flute and the drum of unshod pony hooves on bluestem sod. In all of modern America, there is no more lost, plaintive, old-time sound than the booming of a native prairie chicken.”
No more birds appeared before us, and Simpson was getting worried. During the week before, there had been four or five males on the booming ground, but now it seemed there might not be more than one or two. The small number of birds meant, he said, that they might forgo their highly ritualized territorial displays. “We’ve got such a small booming ground that the system may be breaking down,” he said. “At one time we had 65 males here. Now we’re down to four or five. Normally on a typical booming ground you’d have about 15 males, but there’s not even 15 males in the county now. It’s kind of depressing.”
Through the spring of 1985, the booming grounds were open to the public–anyone could reserve a spot in a blind like the one we were in. But that policy changed after the population in Jasper County began dropping rapidly in the mid-1980s; it was feared that such visits were putting too much stress on the booming birds. “You see why we had to close the visitation program,” said Simpson. “The prairie chickens are so few and so flighty. We still get a couple of calls a day from people wanting to see them.”
At sunrise we could still hear whooping off in the distance. “There must be more hens somewhere else,” said Simpson. He also pointed out for me the hooting call of a distant pheasant. A few years ago, those were more abundant, too.
The ring-necked pheasant, Phasianus colchicus, was introduced into the United States from China as a game bird in the 1800s. Jasper County is at the far southern edge of its range, but it did well there; it is a more aggressive bird than the prairie chicken. On sanctuary land, with no pressure from hunting, the pheasant population boomed. Unfortunately, it did so at the expense of the prairie chicken.
Simpson keeps a slide projector in his office, and one of the slides he can show you is of a booming ground with a pheasant cock in the midst of a crowd of prairie chickens. “The pheasants actually come right out and disrupt mating behavior on the booming grounds by harassing the males and actually chasing them from the area,” Simpson told me in a spiel he had often recited before; as the sanctuary’s unofficial public-relations officer, he has given slide presentations on the prairie chicken for a variety of civic and school groups. Local children may no longer see many prairie chickens, but Simpson figures they should know they’re there.
In 1972, when researchers found 65 cocks on the booming ground I had visited with Simpson, they also heard six crowing pheasant cocks. By 1986 there were 42 prairie chicken cocks and 92 pheasant cocks on the sanctuary, the latter doing untold damage to the mating rituals of the native birds.
A bigger problem is that a pheasant hen is an opportunistic nester, wont to lay one brood of eggs in another bird’s nest before she builds her own for a second brood. Nest parasitism is a strategy that increases the likelihood that at least some of the chicks will survive; and it’s a habit that explains at least partially why the pheasant has adapted so well to its adopted home. (Often a pheasant hen lays her eggs in a nest built by another pheasant; unfortunately for the prairie chicken, the nests of pheasants and prairie chickens are pretty similar. The pheasant hen can’t tell the difference.)
Ronald Westemeier is a middle-aged Wisconsin native who is Ralph Yeatter’s successor. He has been studying the Jasper County prairie chickens as an employee of the Illinois Natural History Survey since 1964, after spending three years studying prairie chickens at Buena Vista marsh in central Wisconsin. There are few scientists around who know prairie chickens as well as he. His office is right next to Simpson’s, and two days after Simpson took me out to the booming ground, Westemeier showed me his egg collection.
Actually, it is not so much an egg collection as an eggshell collection. A big part of Westemeier’s research has involved counting prairie chicken nests. “We have far more nest records than any other state on the greater prairie chicken,” he said. “We’ve got about 1,100 nest records now; we consider it a classic data set. We base our management on what we see and all those nests that we have seen for 26 years.” He swept his hand along a shelf filled with binders. “That’s all the nest records up there, 1,100 of them, and that’s just the highlights of each year’s nest study.” That set of records also comprises the most detailed study anywhere of the interaction of the pheasant and prairie chicken. Financial support from the Illinois Natural History Survey, the Illinois Department of Conservation, and other agencies–over decades–has helped make the Illinois prairie chicken remnant one of the most intensively studied bird populations in the world.
When Westemeier finds a nest, he leaves it alone so that he won’t bother the hen incubating her eggs; but he goes back after the end of the incubation period to find evidence of what happened. Through the 1970s and early 1980s, he found more and more nests containing prairie chicken eggs and pheasant eggshells. In the abandoned prairie chicken eggs, Westemeier found embryos just a day or two shy of hatching; they had died when the prairie chicken hen abandoned the nest. “The pheasant eggs hatch in 23 days,” said Simpson. “The prairie chicken eggs hatch in 25 days. The prairie chicken hen will leave the nest with the young pheasants, leaving her own chicks to die, full-term embryos still intact in the eggshell. She assumes her own eggs are infertile and aren’t going to hatch.”
Westemeier’s collection includes many examples of clutches of pheasant eggshells and dead prairie chicken embryos–or dead quail, or dead mallards. “The mallard hen gets her revenge when she takes her pheasant chicks to the water,” said Westemeier, chuckling. A prairie chicken hen, though, raises the pheasant chicks as her own young.
In 1985 and 1986, Westemeier estimated, about 40 percent of the prairie chicken nests had been parasitized by pheasants–a staggering blow, since roughly half of all nests are destroyed by skunks, raccoons, coyotes, and other predators. Something had to be done. Westemeier’s team tried removing pheasant eggs manually from prairie chicken nests, with notable but still insufficient success: in those nests, 86 percent of the chicken eggs hatched, but there were far more nests that were not found. The Marion County sanctuary, where there was no pheasant population, showed no drop in prairie chicken numbers comparable to that in Jasper County. It became obvious that something would have to be done to control the population of adult pheasants.
Ironically, decades earlier the pheasant had become a premier game bird just as the prairie chicken was losing that status. The prairie chicken was never very common in Illinois before white settlement began–many stands of big bluestem and other common tallgrasses were so high and dense that they were largely impenetrable to the birds. When the first white settlers arrived, they plowed the soils that were easiest to break–those in the forest belts, which were interspersed with prairie. Prairie chickens found more plentiful food than ever before in new fields of corn and other grains, and their numbers boomed.
It must have been prairie chicken heaven: there was still unbroken prairie to nest and shelter in, plus plentiful food in the fields. For farmers, it was a trade-off; they lost some grain, but gained chickens. There was some debate as to whether it was a net gain or loss.
Adam H. Bogardus, known in the 1870s as the “Champion Wing Shot of America,” contended in his Field, Cover, and Trap Shooting (published in 1874) that “the grouse, by consumption of grasshoppers and other destructive insects, is one of the agriculturist’s best friends.” He also described the abundance of prairie chickens in Illinois just before the Civil War: “The pinnated grouse lie in the corn and on the borders of it a good deal too. There was no trouble in killing a great number when I first went there. I have known sixty young ones to be killed in a morning in one field, not more than a quarter of a mile from Elkhart” [which is in Logan County]. The birds landed “with a thump seemingly hard enough to make a hole in the ground when killed clean and well.” On three separate occasions he killed ten birds at one shot, using both barrels.
“It is a delicious bird on the table, either when split and broiled while young, the flesh being then white, or roasted when of full size,” wrote Bogardus. The public agreed. In 1873, 600,000 prairie chickens–shot, trapped, or netted–were bought by Chicago merchants for resale, at $3.25 a dozen. In 1896 alone, the Wisconsin village of Spooner sent 25,000 chickens to tables elsewhere. P.L. Hatch, author of Notes on the Birds of Minnesota, reported in 1892 that “a common shot” could bag 50 or 60 prairie chickens “after a very short day. . . . Nothing short of a national jubilee and half-fares, so moves the masses and the classes as the dawning of the morn of the ‘open season’ for shooting Prairie Chickens.”
The birds were shot in massive quantities as their numbers decreased in the last years of the 19th century, but hunting did not seem to be the cause of the decline. In 1874, wrote Bogardus, “the grouse are much more sparse about Elkhart, especially young grouse. The chief reason is the want of good nesting-places. Except in Mr. Gillot’s extensive pastures, there are no good nesting-places left of any account. This is what causes the great diminution of the numbers of pinnated grouse. They are so prolific, and their food is so abundant, that they could stand shooting in and out of season, and even the trapping and netting which are so extensively carried on in many parts; but when the prairie is all or nearly all broken up, no good breeding-places remain, and young grouse are not to be found. Thus it has been in a great measure about Elkhart.” Bogardus also decried the common practice of burning remaining prairie pastures in late spring to get rid of dead vegetation, a practice that destroyed chicken nests. Better, he suggested, to burn in early spring, before the hens laid their eggs.
When Bogardus wrote, the Illinois prairie chicken hunting season extended from August 15 through January 15. It was eventually reduced to 30 days. From 1903 through 1910, hunting was not permitted at all; from 1911 on, the season spanned only 5 to 15 days. Illinois finally banned prairie chicken hunting in 1933, but by then it was obvious that Bogardus had been right: habitat destruction was the main reason for the chicken’s decline. Its fate had been sealed when John Deere’s steel plow first broke the tough prairie sod in 1837. Farmers soon realized that prairie soils were enormously rich, and they plowed up every inch they could. It took decades, but prairie chickens lost their roosts, their nests, their refuges.
The birds were wiped out first in the northern Illinois counties that planted lucrative monocultures of corn and soybeans. Two reserves in the northern half of the state were set aside to save the last prairie chickens there in the 1940s: the Green River Conservation Area in Lee County and the Iroquois County Conservation Area. But refuge management emphasized human recreation, and the chickens vanished by 1960. The birds were too fussy.
By then, the Illinois Department of Conservation had decided that south central Illinois was the right place for a prairie chicken sanctuary–or two. A large contiguous tract of land would be far too expensive to purchase; but scattered sites of good nesting habitat interspersed among farmed fields would fulfill the prairie chickens’ requirements for both nesting cover and food. “It was also the policy to purchase land in scattered tracts, preferably areas of from 40 to 160 acres, instead of attempting to buy land in one block for a sanctuary. We believe, given limited funds for land acquisition, that we can provide for more prairie chickens with a sanctuary system in scattered tracts than we can with the same amount of land in one block. . . . With the present farming practices in this section of Illinois (primarily soybeans–40 percent, corn–26 percent, and wheat–10 percent, in 1972), the chickens use the intervening farmland for booming, feeding, rearing broods, roosting, and perhaps other activities,” wrote Westemeier in 1973.
In 1962, the Prairie Chicken Foundation of Illinois, a newly formed group, bought a 77-acre tract just north of the booming ground I visited with Simpson. They named it the Ralph E. Yeatter tract. The Prairie Chicken Foundation–and beginning in 1965, the Nature Conservancy–soon bought or leased more land. Sanctuary land in Marion County was first purchased in 1967. Today, parts of the Jasper County Prairie Chicken Sanctuary are named after various donors of money or land: Max McGraw, an avid conservationist; the Donnelley brothers of Chicago printing renown; Marshall Field III; Jamerson McCormack, a Missouri industrialist; Cyrus Mark, a Chicago industrialist; Chauncey McCormick, a member of the family that ran International Harvester; Joseph Galbreath, the chairman of the Prairie Chicken Foundation; the Central Illinois Public Service Company (an overgrown tract that is too brushy now for prairie chickens); and several others.
The Prairie Chicken Foundation was dissolved in 1973; some of the tracts leased or purchased by that group and the Nature Conservancy have since been purchased by the Illinois Department of Conservation. Acquisitions go on: as recently as last year, the Nature Conservancy purchased five acres of land next to the Grassland Wildlife Ecology Lab and removed piles of old machinery and lumber sheltering predators that had endangered the chickens. The sanctuary land in Jasper County now totals 1,361 acres, of which the largest contiguous tract covers 300 acres, the smallest only 17. In Marion County, the sanctuary consists of 760 rather widely scattered acres–not enough, really, but land prices are high, and desirable tracts not easy to come by.
Westemeier, while working for the natural history survey, handled many of the management duties for both sanctuaries. But in 1985, the newly instituted Illinois Nongame Wildlife Checkoff Fund–paid for by voluntary contributions on state-income-tax forms–provided almost $20,000 for the hiring of a full-time manager, leaving Westemeier more time to conduct his research. By this year, that figure had increased to almost $34,000.
For several years after the sanctuary was set up, the prairie chicken population in Jasper County increased–from 78 cocks in 1963 to 108 in 1970, and 203 in 1973. Other birds also benefited: the uncommon upland sandpiper is just one of the other species now nesting there regularly. Then, beginning in the early 1970s, the pheasant population also began to rise.
In 1986, Department of Conservation employees tried live-trapping pheasants on sanctuary land, but “that proved to be very labor-intensive,” said Simpson. Ditto for shooting from blinds and for opportunistic shooting–employees took shotguns with them into the fields and shot pheasants whenever they saw them. “We were trying to do it in a very discreet manner, so as not to upset the local people,” said Simpson. “Of course, when you’re shooting a shotgun, it’s hard to be discreet.
“A lot of the local landowners–not a lot, but some–were kind of unhappy about this project. They consider them their pheasants, and they weren’t real happy when we started controlling them. They had their own private hunting reserve here.” Hunting is not allowed on sanctuary land, but pheasants that strayed from their rich haven there were providing good shooting for neighbors.
By late 1986, Simpson and other Department of Conservation employees decided to have a controlled pheasant shoot–teams of hunters would fan out over the sanctuary, shooting every pheasant they flushed. “We talked to local landowners,” he said. “About a third of them were opposed, a third were neutral, and a third were very supportive. Those people that were opposed were primarily the hunters around the area.”
“There’s always going to be some who resent our efforts, I’m sure,” said Westemeier, “because of the extreme popularity of the ring-necked pheasant. We’ve been taught that the ultimate game species and the ultimate symbol of conservation is the ring-necked pheasant. You can’t argue with something that popular.”
On a January morning in 1987–after the close of the pheasant-hunting season–14 Department of Conservation employees gathered at the Grassland Wildlife Ecology Lab. As Simpson tells it, “After everybody started showing up here, before the controlled shoot, the local opposition began to arrive. We had about 30 people arrive at the front of the sanctuary headquarters to complain. Efforts were made by some local citizens to obtain a court injunction to get it stopped, and there were a lot of petitions being circulated, things like that, trying to talk it down. Some of the local neighbors here called the sheriff’s department, and they came out. The sheriff’s department saw that we were serious about what we were going to do and there was really nothing they could do about it, so they talked to the local farmers and local people that showed up here, and it finally took the sheriff’s department and six conservation police officers to clear the way to proceed with the shoot.
“The basic beef was, ‘These guys are going to control pheasants, and we want to be involved, you know; we want to go out and shoot them too.’ And we just couldn’t allow that because of the chance of someone shooting a prairie chicken–the reliability problems associated with such people out there with guns. These areas are dedicated nature preserves, and it was more than just recreational hunting. It was a control effort; it was never meant to be a pheasant hunt for the local people.”
The two teams of seven hunters bagged a total of 49 pheasants, and shot at no prairie chickens, as Simpson noted with some pride. Hence it was something of a surprise when the 1987 nest study found virtually the same percentage of parasitized nests.
“The local people had bought pheasants,” Simpson said. “They had jars in some of the businesses in Newton with little signs on them indicating, ‘Donations to buy hen pheasants to turn loose on the prairie chicken sanctuaries.’ They had retaliated for our control efforts in that manner. Reportedly they got about 300 bucks and bought 56 hen pheasants and turned them loose in the sanctuary.”
The birds released had been raised in captivity and fell to predators quickly; but some of them survived long enough to parasitize prairie chicken nests. “We sent out letters to some of the local game traders and people that have pheasants, indicating that it is illegal to release pheasants on prairie chicken sanctuaries,” said Simpson. “And it is illegal to release hen pheasants in Illinois. We informed them of the problems that we were having with pheasants and prairie chickens. And I think we’ve pretty well stopped the releases. We’re hoping we did.”
This year, Simpson estimated when I visited, there were less than ten pheasant cocks on the Jasper County sanctuary. To ensure that the population does not increase, Westemeier and his nest-survey teams have been setting up fake nests filled with plastic Easter eggs and golf balls. The pheasant hens, unable to tell them from real eggs, lay eggs there–and with no hen to brood, the eggs will die. “Pheasants lay eggs everywhere,” said Simpson.
At sunrise there were two prairie chickens–a cock and a hen–on the field before Simpson and me. The cock approached within 15 yards of the blind, and I had a chance to look closely. When he got into his display posture, head lowered and tail raised, he looked something like a toy boat afloat on a sea of grass, head and tail of equal height like the forecastle and poop of a galleon. He was a beautiful bird. At the top of his orange air sac was a reddish violet crescent, making the air sac look something like a cheddar cheese spread flavored with red wine. The cock flew a short distance toward the hen, who was pecking–coyly, I thought–at the grass. She showed no interest in him. He bowed and then whooped, lowering his head and stamping his feet so that Simpson and I could hear an audible rustling in the grass. He whooped and stamped for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes–I couldn’t say, I lost track of time.
Still the hen showed no interest; she walked away from the cock into longer grass at the edge of the field. At 6:40, she flew off low over the fields, alternately pounding her stubby wings and gliding, maintaining a constant altitude of about five or six feet. Simpson was convinced there would be no more booming that day, and we left. I hoped the cock and hen would return the next day–maybe then she’d be more sociable. I was reminded of an article in the Effingham Daily News a year earlier: a lone prairie chicken cock had shown up in Effingham County, boomed every morning for two weeks–attracting nothing except curious human onlookers–and then disappeared, presumably detained by some owl or coyote.
This year Simpson was worried that, just as pheasant control efforts were succeeding, other factors were decimating the prairie chickens. In 1988, no parasitized prairie chicken nests were found. For that matter, only eight chicken nests were found at all, and “five of those had been busted up by predators,” said Westemeier. The severe drought made for sparse growth of redtop and other grasses, which meant that birds had little cover to shield them from predators. Low insect populations probably meant inadequate food for young chicks. And pesticides sprayed to ward off a spider-mite infestation in neighboring soybean fields may have been lethal to some young birds.
There is also a poorly understood ten-year cycle that governs prairie chicken populations. The early years of any given decade tend to see high populations; the later years, declining numbers. It’s not just a local phenomenon: prairie chicken populations in other states show the same trend. “There are a lot of theories about it, and it seems to be tied in with the mammalian predation of the nests and the adults,” said Westemeier. “Perhaps weather patterns, perhaps litter cycles, sunspots; there are all kinds of theories. ‘Nine’ years, like the year we’re in now, have typically been upswing years. So we’re very hopeful that we will see that upswing. We hoped for it last year, but it didn’t occur. It didn’t occur, apparently, anywhere.”
There are other problems, too. In 1987, researchers found 28 males on a booming ground in the northern part of the Marion County sanctuary. In 1988, that figure dropped to nine; this year, they found only a single booming cock. The problem seemed to be a commercial egg-production facility–a chicken factory–that was built abutting the sanctuary. Simpson theorizes that the smell of the plant may attract predators. “The facility came in, and the population went down,” he said. “But we really have no way to check any connection. I figure they’ve been dumping some of the dead chickens out in the fields, and of course the farmers spread the manure given to them. It’s good fertilizer, and they spread it all over the private land around the sanctuary.” The manure could spread diseases to native birds; but that’s almost impossible to check because the chances of finding an undisturbed prairie chicken corpse are slim.
This spring’s census found 13 males in Jasper County and 17 in Marion County, which yielded an estimated total of 60 prairie chickens. In early July, Simpson told me that things were looking up–maybe. “We’ve been seeing several prairie chicken broods,” he said. “The surveys found several nests, and none of them had been parasitized. And we haven’t seen any pheasant nests.” Nest-survey teams had found, he reported, successfully hatched prairie chicken nests on the Jasper County sanctuary: 15 eggshells in one, 14 here, 13 there. But the researchers won’t know until next year’s census of booming males whether the population has increased.
This spring, there were also perhaps eight birds on private land in Clay County, which lies between Jasper and Marion counties. It is a flock that has managed to survive entirely on its own. “We don’t understand how they can hang on that long,” said Westemeier. “But they do, at a very low level. Sometimes it’s down to maybe two, three cocks, and you swear next spring you’re going to go back and they’re going to be gone, they’ve got to be so highly inbred. But you go back next spring, and good lord, there might be twice as many. It might go from two cocks or three cocks back up to six, and next year back down to three or four again. The prairie chicken seems to be able to hang on at a very low level like that.”
On North Dakota’s Sheyenne National Grasslands, a 1970 census found only three booming males. Then new management procedures were instituted, primarily a relaxation of grazing that left more cover available for the birds, and by 1980, there were 410 booming males in the same area.
Other management efforts have not been as successful. A remnant prairie chicken population in southwest Michigan was eradicated in the early 1980s, largely because of competition with pheasants. Indiana’s prairie chickens disappeared in the 1960s. Now the birds survive east of the Mississippi only in Illinois and Wisconsin. There are enough prairie chickens in Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Oklahoma to allow a modest hunting season. The relatively large tracts of land there help to minimize competition with pheasants: because prairie chickens prefer the middle swatches of grassland and pheasants prefer the edges, the two species compete intensively only where grassland tracts are small–as in Illinois.
Efforts have been made to reintroduce prairie chickens to areas where they have disappeared. In the summer of 1965, captive-reared prairie chickens were released on Cook County Forest Preserve District land near Barrington; but the birds vanished quickly, probably caught by predators. Prairie chickens do poorly in areas near trees, because hawks and owls perching there prey on them. But even birds introduced on extensive grasslands out of the reach of such predators tend to die off. Reintroduction efforts on extremely large expanses of grassland in Oklahoma, for example, have failed. “What usually happens is that they’re reintroduced, and the birds are just totally disoriented,” said Westemeier. “They fly until they die, essentially. The birds are dead within a few days, or maybe a month or two at most.”
So until biologists can dream up some more subtle reintroduction schemes, it will be up to Simpson and others like him to save the remnant populations. And what Simpson does, mainly, is ensure that the sanctuary grasses are in the proper shape for prairie chickens. That means deciding when a redtop field is getting too thick to provide optimum nest cover–in which case it is plowed, planted with soybeans to return nitrogen to the soil, then reseeded several years later with redtop and timothy. It means cutting the brush that invades grassy fields. It also means deciding when it is time to burn sections of remnant prairie grasses that dot the sanctuary.
The prairie grasses, as Adam Bogardus suggested long ago, are burned generally before the year’s growth begins, when their dead stalks are highly flammable; the grasses grow back slowly the next year, and by the second year after a burn are flourishing, providing good cover. Simpson and Westemeier are hoping that what is good for the prairie chickens will be good for local farmers, too, so they have established a prairie-grass grazing project on the 300-acre tract of sanctuary land immediately south of the Grassland Wildlife Ecology Lab. The idea, simply, is to interest local cattle producers in cultivating native prairie grasses: big bluestem, Indian grass, and others. Because the sanctuary’s holdings are separated by privately owned land, landowners’ cooperation is vital if the prairie chickens are to increase.
Native prairie grasses grow most swiftly in the heat of the summer, when the cool-season grasses imported from Europe–redtop, timothy, brome, bluegrass–that fill most pastures are dormant. The latter, in turn, exhibit most of their growth in spring and fall, when the prairie grasses are largely dormant. Most Illinois cattlemen have pastures of only imported cool-season grasses; and during the summer, their cattle sometimes lose weight. On pastures of native grasses in Missouri, on the other hand, “they’re demonstrating weight gains of two to three pounds per day per steer,” said Westemeier. “You put the cattle on early to the cool-season grasses and then switch them over to the warm-season grasses in the summertime, and you have a continuous weight gain on your cattle,” said Simpson. “What this does is to benefit wildlife as it rests the pastures.”
This summer a local farmer is grazing his cattle on two ten-acre pastures behind the Grassland Wildlife Ecology Lab, some on the patch sown with cool-season grasses, others on the one planted with warm-season grasses. In mid-August Simpson and Westemeier will compare the weight gains shown by cattle on the two plots. If the project is successful, they hope to be able to convince landowners to reestablish some native grasses. “It’s very hard to justify doing very much on private farmland unless you can show an economic benefit,” said Westemeier. Because such a grazing system leaves warm-season grasses undisturbed in the spring and fall, and cool-season grasses undisturbed in the summer, it allows those grasses to grow higher than when they are grazed continuously. That leaves more cover for wildlife–especially, of course, for prairie chickens.
The 300-acre tract of land, consisting of the McCormick tract and the old Donsbach farm, supports 50 or 60 species of native prairie plants–a far cry from the several hundred varieties that grew there before white settlement. Still, it’s better than corn and soybeans. Westemeier has big plans for the land. “We entertain ideas of eventually establishing a bison herd out here on this tract,” he said. “It’s got a good fence around it, and it would lend itself to maintaining a bison herd.”
It is a vision in keeping with the romance of the old prairie, with the oceanic swaying of big bluestem in the wind and the dancing of a jostling and noisy party of prairie chicken cocks. Prairie chickens, somehow, inspire reverential visions. Perhaps it is because of their link with tradition: some booming grounds are used year after year, for decades or perhaps even centuries. And those human residents of the same turf who have seen prairie chickens in the field–or even on the table–tend not to forget them. Ronald Westemeier: “Most of the owners and residents around here have fond memories of the greater prairie chicken booming in the morning. Lord, they lived on ’em here; for their great-grandparents, that was a part of their diet for years and years. The morning serenade, and living with them–it’s part of their heritage, and they don’t want to see it disappear.”
Such images are considerably more romantic than the vision I had while sitting in the blind with Scott Simpson before dawn: that of a single cock swooping suddenly onto an old booming ground every day and whooping his heart out and getting no response, whooping the lonely cry of the last of his race only to the reddening sky.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.