The Prairie Chicken Bed and Breakfast

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Published on: Apr. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 26, 2010


For the first time in my life," Karlos Kaelke says quietly, "I dreamt about prairie chickens last night. I was watching them fly in, and as they came closer, I saw that they had lights under their wings, little landing lights. And in the dream I thought, 'Now how come, after my whole life of watching prairie chickens, I never noticed those birds have little white lights under their wings just like airplanes?'" He staggers with laughter.Karlos usually is a reserved person - a fourth generation Dade County farmer - but when he belly-laughs, there's a glimpse of something mischievous and possibly rowdy in his eyes. Laughter and talk of his dream finally sends him back-stepping, hands in his pockets, through the doors of his large, orderly barn. About 200 yards away, 15 real prairie chickens - 12 roosters and 3 hens - pay him no mind whatsoever.

For as long as Karlos and Elaine Kaelke can remember, prairie chickens have returned to the same booming ground on their farm every spring. "Booming" describes the low sounds males make while trying to attract females. "Oooop!, whudooo, whudooo, whudooo" is how it goes. The morning after Karlos' dream, the wind carries their cries away from our lookout near the barn.

We stand just inside the doorway of the barn and peer through binoculars and a large scope for the best view of the chickens. Karlos only dreamed of landing lights, but today, the birds could have used them. Dawn comes to the Kaelke farm, just two miles outside of Lockwood, and the daffodils are drooping under the weight of wet snow. April 6th, spring in Missouri, and the birds pay little attention to the snowfall either.

The prairie chickens are consumed by the choreography of their spring mating ritual. Males puff and wobble their orange air sacs, stamp and settle their feet and fight among themselves for territory. They are scattered loosely along the horizon, many roosters vying for the attention of three females. The hens appear sometimes attentive, sometimes wondrously bored by the whole thing.

Biologists monitor habitat, study and keep careful count of these endangered birds. Long after the science is done, however, we still are left captivated by the vision of these strange, squat birds and their colorful, astounding spring ritual. There is nothing less than mystery and inexplicable natural forces at work on a prairie chicken booming ground.

A New Roost

"It was about

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