The heath hen was among the first American birds mentioned in writing by colonists. William Wood, resident of Lynn, Massachusetts, wrote in his 1635 New England Prospect: "Heathcocke and Partridges be common: he that is husband, and will be stirring bedtime, may kill halfe dozen in a morning. The Partridges be bigger than be in England, the flesh of the Heathcockes is red, and the flesh of the Partridge is white, their price is four pence a piece."
Heath hens were so common that laborers in the area of Boston stipulated with their employers not to have the birds on the table more than a few times a week. Overharvest through market hunting led to one of the earliest conservation measures in the U.S., 1791 legislation outlawing spring and summer hunting for heath hen. But it wasn't enough. This bird, once found over Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Long Island and points beyond, retreated in front of habitat destruction to Martha's Vineyard in 1870. By 1931, it became no more.
Attwater's prairie chicken faces a similar situation where it is confined to the sandy coastal plains and oak-savannah in southeast Texas. Its habitat has been lost to livestock grazing and cultivated crops but is afforded a measure of protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The greater prairie chicken proper, the third subspecies, is in far better shape and is hunted in four central plains states, North Dakota to Kansas. But much has changed since Teddy Roosevelt had his 50-bird days in South Dakota. Greater prairie chickens once ranged from Manitoba through Ohio to Texas and across the central plains states. Today, stable populations and not-so-stable outlier populations exist from southern Canada to Oklahoma. The radical decline in range is the same sad song, habitat loss. Oak-savannah and tall prairie grasses are preferred habitats, but the greater prairie chicken had some tolerance to cultivated lands. Where the tilled soil exceeds native plants, this bird cannot succeed. Tall grasses in quantity are requisite for successful nesting.
Courtship starts in late March; males move onto the traditional leks marked by a small knoll with minimal vegetation which allows the displaying birds to see one another. Two and upwards to 20 males may hold a territory around a lek. Before sunrise, the males arrive to start "booming," often described like the sound of a kettledrum. The males display their air sacs the color of mandarins, and rapidly pat their feet which make a rolling sound. Males charge one another in spurious fights.
Females retire to domestic duty of raising the brood in nests invariably built on the ground. The thick grasses protect the brooder and clutch from predators and inclement weather. Frosts in May and the heat of June could kill embryos. Incubation takes about 25 days.
Young birds of summer quickly set about eating seeds, buds and leaves, but insects are especially important to the young. Greater prairie chickens enjoy eating cultivated grains - wheat, barley, oats, millet, and especially corn - more than any other grouse species. By autumn, the young look like their parents and have reached their maximum size. With only their feathers to hide under in the wide open, most predation occurs from above; hawks, owls, eagles, and falcons prey on chickens from the air. Badgers, foxes, coyotes and domestic cats and dog prey on chickens on the ground.
Man figures prominently as a participant in the natural world, directly as a hunter, and indirectly as a manipulator of the environment. Most management efforts involve habitat improvement, usually by means of controlled burns of the prairies to maintain suitable grasses and manipulating livestock grazing. Preserving habitat is a necessity, especially with the Attwater's prairie chicken.
Thankfully, the conservation ethic has evolved since the 1800s. There's still time for the Attwater's bird, and greater prairie chickens continue to be a favored autumn pursuit on the plains.
Craig Springer holds a bachelor's and master's degree in fisheries and wildlife ecology from Hocking College, New Mexico State University, and the University of Arizona. He's about to receive a master's in English from the University of New Mexico where he's concentrated on the rhetoric of science and nature.
When not penning stories about the outdoors, Springer serves as executive director of the 140-member Rocky Mountain Outdoor Writers and Photographers (www.rmowp.org). Springer has worked in a variety of media -- radio, newspaper, video, and magazines. He's was recently named contributing editor at The Grouse Point Almanac and is the conservation editor for Flyfisher magazine. Springer has been a columnist at North American Fisherman since 1996 and writes a column in the Mountain View Journal. Other writing credits include: Outdoor Life Radio, Sports Afield, In-Fisherman, and Fly Fish America.