Bird lovers from Alaska to North Carolina are in northwestern Oklahoma this weekend to watch the lesser prairie chicken. "I’ve made a lot of money on prairie chickens this year,” said Sue Selman of Buffalo, one of three ranch owners hosting prairie chicken tours as part of the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival, which continues through Wednesday.
Now is the mating season of lesser prairie chickens, and the courtship is grand theater. Every morning, the males gather at "leks” — places of high ground where they can display their plumage and colors for the females and keep a wary eye on potential predators. When a hen comes by looking for a mate, the show begins. The males do their best to look active and fit for the hens, dancing and cackling, and occasionally even fighting with their competitors. Apologies to the Professional Bull Riders Inc., but this is the greatest show on dirt. Birders and wildlife photographers are more interested in the lesser prairie chicken these days. That’s because they know this show soon may be closed. The lesser prairie chicken is disappearing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is close to listing the birds as a "threatened” species. Under a layman’s definition, they are already threatened. They are threatened by the spread of fences, the Eastern Red Cedar and wind turbines. Many prairie chickens have died from fence collisions. When being pursued, the birds fly fast and low, and instinctively escape predators by diving into cover where hawks won’t follow. They haven’t learned to avoid fences. The unwelcome sprawl of the Eastern Red Cedar is choking off their habitat. The growth of the wind industry threatens to do the same. It seems the prairie chickens’ days are numbered.