Prairie Chickens: Dancing at DawnA noisy lawnmower. Someone dropping a bowling ball on the forest floor. The "burping" sound you get by cupping your armpits. Strange sounds! And this time of year, they could be coming from birds! Male grouse and prairie chickens are starting their mating displays in many places throughout the continent. These relatives of farm chickens are all large, tasty birds. Prairie chickens attract coyotes, foxes, hawks, and owls, so they are very secretive. But some of them have spectacular displays very early in the morning—before it's light enough for most predators to be out. Many of them produce weird or eerie sounds by pumping air. Listen:
the prairie states, prairie chickens are now "booming." They
inflate colorful air sacs on the sides of their throat and beneath their
"eyebrows" and produce a low sound that is similar to blowing
air over an empty soda bottle. Sharp-tailed Grouse, from the prairie provinces
and northern prairie states, inflate purple throat airsacs and thump their
feet so hard on the ground that they sound like a noisy lawn mower starting
up. Sage Grouse, living in sagebrush areas of the plains, have a fascinating
yet funny display: inflating huge airsacs on their chests. When going
about their normal daily business, all of these birds deflate their colorful
air sacs, which stay fairly hidden beneath their feathers so the birds
can be camouflaged to hide from predators.
When you hear a drumming grouse, it's possible to sneak up for a better look. Make sure you're wearing waterproof boots, because forest soil is wet and muddy in spring. Listen hard to figure out what direction the sound is coming from. Move toward the grouse while it is drumming, and between drumming hold still and be quiet. Look on the ground for fallen logs: the grouse sits very still between drumming activities, and blends in very well. Just before it begins drumming, it sometimes inflates its throat, making the "ruff" feathers stick out, and then pulls its body erect and starts beating its wings.
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