A plucky little bird in northwest Oklahoma — known for its comical mating dances in which it patters around like a jittery wind-up toy — has found itself pitted against an unlikely environmental foe.
Huge power-generating wind turbines are expected to pop up all over the lesser prairie chicken's habitat in coming years, and biologists say the development could push the birds onto the endangered species list or even into extinction.
"We're very concerned they could go into a nose dive that they wouldn't recover from,” said Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation at the National Audubon Society.
That's not because the birds fly into the turbine blades.
"They can't really strut their stuff anywhere where there's something tall nearby,” Butcher said.
Lesser prairie chickens usually won't go near wind turbines — much less breed in their midst, according to information gathered through radio collar tracking. The stocky birds see the turbines and transmission lines as hideouts for their predators, namely hawks and eagles.
Their already limited habitat is expected to be further fragmented by the wind industry, pushing them into small groups that have low chances for survival, biologists and wildlife experts said.
The situation has environmentalists scratching their heads as they wrestle with their desire to protect a vulnerable species and promote renewable energy.
Can the lesser prairie chicken and the wind industry co-exist on the plains? Experts say it will be tricky since no regulations protect the bird.
The rise of wind power
Maps of wind power potential overlap almost exactly with the lesser prairie chicken's habitat in Oklahoma.
Eighty-seven of the 96 known lesser prairie chicken breeding circles in Oklahoma are within five miles of "excellent” wind farm territory, according to a federal report.
The birds mate only in those locations, which are called leks. The mating circles are at relatively high elevations where the birds' dances and calls can easily be seen and heard by potential mates, said Russ Horton, a supervisor and wildlife biologist at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Biologists fear wind farm development will scare the prairie chickens away from those important spots.