It may still be winter but beneath the howl of the frigid wind you can almost hear the stirring of the heart of spring in northwest Oklahoma. In about 60 days, the lesser prairie chicken breeding season will begin and so will a mating ritual older than recorded history.
Historical journals tell us that when settlers arrived in Oklahoma lesser prairie chickens were so numerous that wagons could not avoid crushing nests along the trail. Loss of habitat, red cedar encroachment, over-hunting in the early days, and predation have reduced the distribution of the creature to southwestern Kansas, a portion of the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, and a small area of west Texas. In Oklahoma, the lesser prairie chicken population may be just over 2,000 birds and they are nearing the brink of extinction in our state.
The Selman Ranch, near Buffalo, north of Woodward, is one area where you can see the lesser prairie chicken in a natural habitat. The mating season can begin in late March and continue through April and into mid-May. Owner Sue Selman conducts tours to see the birds as their mating ritual plays out in the leks, or booming grounds, on her property. It is a spectacle that can be life-changing.
Selman says, “It’s hard to describe what it’s like, sitting there in the blind and listening to them come in in the dark and seeing them dance and prance. They’re beautiful little birds and they’re so fun to watch, and it’s a very unique experience. You have to be there to truly appreciate it.”
Selman’s tours are generally conducted through the month of April when the mating season is in its peak. Visitors sit in blinds in the lek while the prairie chicken roosters bob and weave, dance and pose, in hopes of attracting the attention on an amorous female. The male birds come back to the same lek year after year and the boundaries were established long before man disturbed the cycle.
The dance is familiar and after a while you realize that you have seen it before, even if you have never seen the lesser prairie chicken version. Plains tribes adopted the intricate steps of the ritual into dance and you see variations of it in Native American dance competitions.
Sue Selman has marked her fences with white plastic strips so that the birds can avoid flying into them. She has become a champion for the lesser prairie chicken in Oklahoma. For her efforts, the Oklahoma Audubon Society named the Selman Ranch as one of the first two Oklahoma Important Birding Areas. The other was the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge. She is a woman on a mission to call attention to the plight of these endangered natural treasures.
“It just really makes me heartsick to think that they would be gone,” she says. “Some people don’t understand why you care or why should we care but you start losing species, it’s not long before we’re in trouble. And it’s more than just another bird or a bird, it’s a way of life and it’s saying a lot about the way we take care of the land or don’t take care of the land.”
There are many species of birds on the Selman Ranch and bird watchers and photographers are becoming more aware of its pristine opportunities for filling life lists and photo albums, but the prairie chicken is still the star.
The prairie chicken viewing tours on the Selman Ranch have drawn visitors all over America to witness this vanishing spectacle and the City of Woodward and the Oklahoma Audubon Society have teamed to create the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival to educate others about the species. The 2011 festival is set for April 15-21, with field trips and workshops.
People who come are anxious to see this natural dance of life before it disappears and the call of the lesser prairie chicken is heard no more in the rolling hills of northwestern Oklahoma.