You have to wake up pretty early in the morning to fool a Greater Prairie Chicken. Though they'll strut their stuff with authority in like company, the showy little creatures, slightly smaller than domestic chickens, are shy around humans, especially when it comes to mating rituals. But each spring, the Colorado Division of Wildlife teams up with the Wray Museum to lead guided viewing tours of those rituals at Colorado's prime booming grounds -- a kind of dance hall for the horny grouse -- high on the open prairie of eastern Yuma County. The catch? You have to go at four in the morning, and you can just forget about using your camera.
"It's getting more popular, and it's not an easy thing to do," says Todd Malmsbury, a CDW spokesman. "It's something that takes a real commitment. It's cold and dark when you start, and you have to be extremely quiet. But it provides a real example of what it's like to interact with wildlife." In fact, competition for a spot on one of the tours is not unlike the ritual itself; they often fill up weeks in advance. Division district wildlife manager Larry Rogstad assures us that it's absolutely worth it.
"It's kind of like being at the singles bar," Rogstad says of the elaborate nuptial displays. And once you've heard the noise coming off the booming ground, he adds, you'll know immediately why it's so named. "They fill these pouches on their cheeks, and by strumming the air, they make a dance sound, like 'WHOO, WHOO,' that you can hear from a mile and a half away." But the astonishing, low-frequency soundtrack is only part of the show. In a fury of cackling and fluttering, Rogstad says, the strutting males bend their bodies forward and stick their necks out, exposing feathers called pinnae, which fan out, enhancing the balloon-like orange booming sacs and looking for all the world "like an Indian headdress on a five-year-old kid."
The human comparison is more accurate than you'd think. "When there's a hen coming, the males get a lot closer, and their dancing gets more frenetic," Rogstad notes. "They're a lot like kids in junior high -- you know how, when a girl goes by, the boys all stand a little higher and fluff their chests out? The females just stand off to one side, finding out who's the best Michael Jackson out there."
Rogstad shamelessly ends his description with a plug: With tax time coming up, he urges folks to pay attention to the Division of Wildlife donation check-off at the end of their state tax forms. "It's important to realize that this was a species imperiled in Colorado, but we've been able to help the bird back into a fairly healthy population; through controlled trapping and transplanting, we've been very successful in managing this species. And that's what the money goes for -- programs to manage and recover non-game species."
As long as that process continues, Rogstad says, things will be booming each spring in Yuma County. "Yuma and Wray are really proud of their prairie chickens -- it's a big social event out there. And the coolest thing about it is that you're seeing a display that's probably occurred in the same spot every spring since the Ice Age. It's an ancient ritual we're still fortunate enough to see today." -- Froyd