Spirit of the Prairie

The moon cast bluish light over the prairie as I sat in my photo blind, waiting for dawn.

I could tell I was not alone. Ghost-like shadows passed my blind, and I heard hollow “oo-loo-woo” sounds. They were the calls of prairie chickens, my quarry for the day, and they sounded lonely and sad. The calls penetrated my soul like a spirit whispering in my ears.

Not long after first light, a male prairie chicken ran in front of me and stopped. Stamping his feet as he turned a full circle, he stretched out his long neck feathers, fanned his tail and filled his bright orange neck sacs with air before releasing a deep, resonant call. He was so close I could see the eyebrows on his thumb-size head.

Prairie chickens (pinnated grouse) were once common throughout the North American prairie. In 1900, there were two species of prairie chicken in the U.S.: the greater and the lesser prairie chicken. The three sub-species of the greater prairie chicken were the Attwater’s prairie chicken, the greater prairie chicken and the heath hen.

Today, only two sub-species remain. The heath hen was declared extinct in 1932. The Attwater’s prairie chicken may soon become extinct as well; only a handful remain along the upper Texas coast.

Greater prairie chickens are the only species found in Missouri, and they aren’t faring well here. Hunting for these partridge-size birds ended in 1907, but their populations never recovered. Fewer than 500 greater prairie chickens now live in the state. They return each year to mate at known booming grounds located in the southwest and northern parts of the state.

Lowell Pugh, an emeritus member of the Missouri Prairie Foundation, has observed prairie chickens for more than 50 years near his hometown of Golden City. Pugh said he’s often crawled over wet and muddy grass to get a close look at his beloved prairie chickens, and he remembers seeing flocks of them flying over the prairie during winter.

Only three male prairie chickens now visit the booming grounds where he had once observed hundreds. Pugh believes it won’t be long before he witnesses the final chapter of their life.

“It is sad to see them disappear,” Pugh said, “and I will miss them.”

Photographing prairie chickens is my way of preserving their unique life history. My days usually begin around 4 a.m., starting with a half an hour of walking through fields with my heavy camera backpack.

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