Witness prairie chicken dances at dawn

The funky dancing begins at the onset of dawn, and it is a private affair – a ritual that starts with cooing, and the low hum of interplay seems almost meditative.

The guys strut like flamboyant show-offs, and the gals act like they’d rather not be bothered, yet they linger. A neck patch of brilliant orange balloons when the male mating call grows more persistent; the females remain indifferent, uncooperative.

The courtship – 15 males to two females, in this case – is witnessed while slightly crouched in a wooden blind that accommodates four people. This is no duck blind: The oblong box is on ground, not looming above the creatures of our attention.

For almost three hours, we sit relatively wordless on little benches and peek out of unobtrusive holes, making sure to not reveal our silhouettes. One glimpse of an interloper, and this odd mating dance would end abruptly.

In the background are the honks, chirps and twitters of meadowlarks, woodcocks, bobolinks, geese and other feathered creatures.

Dozens of people this month will rise in chilly darkness to watch prairie chickens prance, hop with wings aflutter, stake out and protect territory within their booming ground. The males do all the talking, about 50 feet in front of us, appearing shortly after we settle inside of our wooden nest.

What began as a word-of-mouth opportunity for serious birders has turned into a way to draw casual tourists into central Wisconsin for an unusual, close-to-nature experience that can’t be duplicated elsewhere in the state.

For one weekend per year, conservationists lead nature lovers to remote wildlife management areas that contain greater prairie chickens (one of three kinds of prairie chickens in the U.S.).

Until 1955, prairie chickens could be hunted in Wisconsin. They have since been designated a protected species. The flock, which could be found in every county at the beginning of that century, today totals just 1,200. Ninety percent live in the central part of the state.

“If they’re doing well, then the grasslands are doing well,” says educator Jodi Wieber Hermsen. She works for the Golden Sands Resource Conservation and Development Council, a nine-county environmental agency, based in Stevens Point.

The prairie chickens are skittish, maybe even a little paranoid. They require a lot of room to roam and prefer grassland habitats with no trees. They want to be able to see what is 360 degrees around them, and seeing nothing (as in humans or other predators) is a good thing. Mating won’t happen until the birds feel comfortable enough in their surroundings.

When the female birds fly away at sunrise, it’s also our signal to leave the roost, and the booming ends for another day.

Our race to meet the chickens began at 3 a.m., with the din of a hotel alarm clock in Wisconsin Rapids. A deceptive map and vast pond of darkness would scramble all sense of direction; soon one country road looked no different than the others.

So what should have been an easy 15-minute drive south, to an unlit parking lot near an intersection, turned into a speeding frenzy that nearly bumped off a whitetail. The confusion lasted more than one hour, at one point weaving into Rome, population 600 – way off course, with no place to ask for directions.

It was after 5 a.m. at our arrival, and event organizers set a 4:30 deadline, so visitors can be in place before any hint of daylight. From the parking lot, we were hurriedly led down a dusty road, parked and followed a fence on foot, until reaching a set of reflectors and the bird blind.

It would have been far less stressful to find the meeting spot in daylight, so it seems halfway familiar during total darkness.

Other advice? Don’t get fueled up on coffee before settling into the blind for three hours. There is little dancing that you can do if nature calls.

The annual Prairie Chicken Festival, April 18-20, always is during Earth Day weekend. A $2 wristband provides access to nature workshops, guided hikes and the annual Wisconsin Center for the Book’s Literary Bash.

Activities occur in and near Wisconsin Rapids, at Rapids Mall, Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, Historic Point Basse in Nekoosa and Buena Vista, Paul J. Olson, Mead and Sandhill wildlife areas.

A prairie chicken calling contest at 2:30 p.m. April 19 at Mead is a first-time event.

A few predawn spots in blinds remain, to watch prairie chickens perform their mating ritual. The cost is $25, which includes breakfast cooked outdoors and access to the other festival events. Daytime grassland birding tours also require reservations. For more: www.prairiechickenfestival.org, 715-343-6215.

Festival organizers allowed us free access to the flirting prairie chickens, in conjunction with our appearance at the 2007 Literary Bash.