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Make Plans to See the Lesser Prairie Chicken Now... While You Still Can

This is the male version of the lesser prairie chicken.
National Audubon Society
National Audubon Society
This is the male version of the lesser prairie chicken.

This week, KPR has been reporting on the lesser prairie chicken. These days, bird watchers have fewer feathered friends to watch than they used to because of massive declines in population. Wayne Walker, with the group Common Ground Capital, says about 90% of the lesser prairie chicken's habitat has been lost. “Imagine if 90% of the rainforest was cut down. People would be freaking out about that," he said.

The lesser prairie chicken used to roam across the Great Plains by the millions. Now, the threatened bird species has an estimated population of just 25,000. Despite this, Commentator Rex Buchanan says you can still find the bird in parts of western Kansas... and people from all over come to see it.

Want to see the lesser prairie chicken for yourself? Check out the Kansas Lek Treks Festival.

National Audubon Society
National Audubon Society


Back in April, I led a couple of field trips out west for Audubon of Kansas. They’re a statewide environmental organization, and in the interest of full disclosure, I’m on their board.

These field trips were part of an annual prairie chicken festival that they operate out of Hays. The main focus is to see prairie chickens on their mating grounds, or leks, in the shortgrass prairie of western Kansas. Early in the morning, the chickens dance and boom and go through mating rituals at locations that they return to regularly.

The bird watchers come to see two species of prairie chickens: the greater prairie chickens, which are fairly common in the Flint Hills and Smoky Hills of Kansas and other parts out west, and the much rarer lesser prairie chicken.

Festival goers get up well before dawn, sometimes as early as 3:30 in the morning, so they can get to the leks and settle behind blinds without disturbing the birds. Then, as the sun comes up, they watch the birds perform.

Or so I’m told. I’ve never actually done this myself, at least out there, because I’ve been leading field trips to look at the local geology, usually places in the chalk beds like Castle Rock and Monument Rocks in Gove County, Little Jerusalem in Logan County.

I can say that the people who come to this festival are from all over the country. Most of the vans I drive have far more people from Ohio, California, and Texas than from Kansas. And they are hard core. They’re obviously here to see birds. On this year’s trip we spent as much time looking at burrowing owls and yellow-headed blackbirds as we did looking at rocks. Lots of the attendees keep lists of the birds they’ve seen over the years, and they’re especially interested in adding new birds to their lists.

What I really admire about these folks is their unbridled enthusiasm. They love seeing new birds, sure, but they also love just about everything out west, like bison and antelope, and the chalk badlands and outcrops of the Ogallala Formation that crops out at Lake Scott. For many, it’s their first trip to Kansas, and they do love it so.

This year I had a couple in my van from Massachusetts who said they’d never seen a cottonwood tree. Now I’m not a botanist or a birder, but I’m pretty sure they have cottonwoods back east. Still, these folks said they’d never seen one, and they were tickled when they did. Just as they were happy to wonder through the chalk beds and ask about the limestone churches in the little towns we drove through.

I’ve lived in Kansas most of my life and I’ve long pondered our inferiority complex. I recently saw a map of the US in which each state’s residents identified the number one tourist attraction in their state. What did Kansans identify? Nothing. Nada. Zip.

Now I’m not sure how the folks who came to see prairie chickens would answer that question about Kansas. Probably they’d say the birds they saw or maybe the prairie wildflowers. But I’ll bet they’d have an answer. We should too. ####

Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer and director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey. He lives in Lawrence.

Rex Buchanan is also co-author of the book Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills, published by University Press of Kansas.

Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, author and director emeritus at the Kansas Geological Survey.