By Bruce Ruisard
If you wanted to add Whippoorwills to your morning observations of birds, you would have to get up early. In the old days, bird watching groups would find Greater Prairie-Chickens (Tympanuchus cupido) early in the morning at their “booming grounds” late in February, March and April. They would visit a farm near Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area where state road 49 abruptly ends. Another site was on highway 14, 5½ miles west of the Jasper-Pulaski county line. Later, up until the demise of the Indiana Prairie-Chickens in 1973, Newton County was the only place in the state to find them.
These game birds were well studied over the years. A yearly survey of known booming grounds was conducted from 1942 to 1974. The 1951 survey found 17 Prairie-Chicken booming grounds in Newton County, six in Jasper County and one in White County. Six flocks were found at Fair Oaks Farm in Newton County, where they lived with cattle in over 100 acres of pasture.
Since 1850, native prairie habitat has been plowed and settled. At first, Prairie-Chickens and humans maintained a balanced coexistence. Man offered corn and soybeans to supplement the Prairie-Chicken’s diet of native seeds and Prairie-Chickens were a food source for humans. Unlike Ruffed Grouse that hate open country, Prairie-Chickens have few enemies and will readily display and feed in the open. Great-Horned Owls are one of a few predators that are a danger to Prairie-Chickens, so thick stands of big bluestem tallgrass were needed to roost and nurture their young.
Today, these birds are found in areas of Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and many scattered areas west of the Mississippi River. They have also been found in the southern portions of Canadian provinces Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba; and less commonly in southern Ontario. A bird guide will show the subtle characteristics for identifying females and the more easily identifiable males.
The male’s “booming” sounds like oo—loo—woo, an unmistakable low-frequency sound. At a distance, a group calling all at once sounds like chaotic howling. The display, shown in the above photo, establishes a pecking order; they stomp their feet, bow, jump and yelp. The females enter in lesser numbers and eventually mate once with a dominant male. This single copulation fertilizes an entire clutch of 10-18 eggs.
Much has been written about how abundant Prairie-Chickens were in Indiana. A study in 1910 by Commissioner Miles of the Indiana Department of Conservation reported 100,000 individuals. By 1951, only 650 were reported. Russell Mumford found the last reported nest in Indiana on June 13, 1964 and the last brood in 1970. Indiana Department of Natural Resources Biologist, Robert D. Feldt witnessed the last Indiana Prairie-Chicken on April 3, 1972 in Newton County. Sadly, it was booming to an untenanted audience. What happened? Why was nothing done to preserve them?
Simply put, the Prairie-Chickens were caught in a land squeeze. The average size of an Indiana farm in the 1900s was 100 acres. After World War I, grain prices dropped and stayed low. Expenses of modern farming — seed, fertilizer, equipment and taxes — required more land in production to retain profit margins. So, the response was to plow every bit of the back forty in order to maximize profits.
The beginning of World War II brought with it an increasing number of factory jobs, which allowed some less-profitable farmers to sell their land to farmers with a greater amount of production. The land squeeze was affecting farmers and our birds. Guess which was squeezed the tightest?
By the 1960s and 1970s capital grew so much that this scenario was inexcusable. People had new wealth to buy land in the country and it only took one square mile of tallgrass prairie to support a local population of Prairie-Chickens. Organizations, the government and private landowners could have acted to save the Prairie-Chicken, but no one did. The pitfall of the Beaver Lake Prairie-Chicken Refuge in Newton County is that it lacks suitable cover to protect them. Efforts at the Kankakee Sands are ongoing to restore prairie habitat on 7,000 acres but it will require years to grow into true habitat. Also, Universal Mine in southern Indiana is good prairie habitat and many are hopeful that someday Illinois birds may be successfully introduced to restore the Prairie-Chicken population in Indiana.
The tallgrass prairie once covered one-third of our state, yet is now endangered like no other habitat. This threatened ecosystem provides habitat for many species that are likewise becoming threatened with extinction. The land that was once native prairie requires our immediate critical attention to protect the small fragments that still remain and to restore other areas to their former splendor.