Prairie Chickens Welcome Spring After Harsh Winter

Experts Wait To See How Population Has Been Affected By Harsh Winter

Above, a greater prairie chicken. Photo: Greg the Busker (CC-BY-SA)

Wisconsin’s endangered prairie chicken population will once again welcome spring this weekend with their annual mating rituals, but experts are waiting to see if the harsh winter affected their numbers.

The maniacal spring laughter will be heard again this weekend as birders flock to the Central Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival in Portage County. Mike Copas, of the Golden Sands Resource Conservation and Development Council, said the birds will be back on the booming grounds, undeterred by the long winter.

“Their biological clocks are dependent on the length of the day,” Copas said. “In fact, in the past many photographers have gotten pictures of prairie chickens in a couple inches of snow.”

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Copas is nevertheless concerned that some birds might not have survived the cold.

“When a population of animals is as small as the prairie chickens — I believe the most recent estimate of the population was 600 individual birds in central Wisconsin — anything such as the weather, adverse weather conditions, can have a large effect on that population,” he said.

It will be a year or two before researchers can accurately gauge how the winter has affected the central Wisconsin population.

Copas said of even greater concern for the chickens is the loss of grassland habitat.

“In central Wisconsin, we have the largest … contiguous tract of grasslands east of the Mississippi River, and we’re working very hard to maintain the quality of those grasslands — not only for the greater prairie chicken, but also for other state-threatened species,” he said.

For those who want to get up at 3 a.m., there are still spots in the blinds to watch the prairie chickens dance during this weekend’s festival on the Buena Vista grasslands — or, if one is a local, the Byoon-ah Vista grasslands.