Its habitat decimated, this charismatic Minnesota bird dances on the edge of oblivion | Region

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The thunder had passed but the wind remained, whipping in the darkness through the prairie grass, over the low hills and scattered oaks to Brian Winter’s blind field.

The retired environmentalist waited for dawn. In the soft light, still blurred by storm clouds, Winter stared at the grass of a ridge ahead of him. Swans glided in a pond just beyond. A hawk circled in the distance above a vast prairie in western Minnesota.

Winter looked worried.

For the first time in decades, for some reason – maybe the storm or that hawk circling – the prairie chickens weren’t there.

An hour passed. “Never in my 30s,” Winter said.

People from across the country and beyond come to Clay County each spring to watch the prairie chickens and their mating dance. Winter leads them, morning after morning, to the Nature Conservancy’s viewing shades – a small tent between two wooden shelters. The birds are so predictable that the blinds were built just 15 feet from where they “boom” – play for each other to prove their manhood and attract a hen.

For some bird watchers, large prairie chickens top the list of must-see species. For others, the clumsy, proud dancing birds are a gateway drug that draws them deeper into awe and fate of wildlife and the natural world.

Birds arrive every spring just before and after sunrise at this exact spot, which is mowed every fall to the short, tall grass they need to see each other.

They’ll be spooked if they see people walking towards them, Winter said. But they always come back.

At least they always have.

The shade began to heat up as the sun rose higher. Winter, wearing a cap that read “Our business is booming!” began to question every action he and his group took that morning. He was accompanied by a young couple, an amateur photographer, a television camera crew, two journalists and a handful of birdwatchers who had come to see prairie chickens for the first time. Did they park too close, did they arrive too late? Winter wondered if early that morning before he or anyone else reached the blinds, a hawk or sparrowhawk had attacked and killed any of the birds, knocking them back for cover.

“They’re going to be really scared for a while if that’s what happened,” he said.

The state’s prairie chicken population has fallen to about 5,000, a tiny fraction of what it was.

Prairie chickens were once so common in Minnesota that their flocks formed black clouds in the sky, casting shadows across the prairies. As their name suggests, they were a prized food source, although they had little in common with the poultry for which they were named. Historic photos show contented hunters with guns at their side, with dozens of birds hanging from a string.

Winter, 63, with a boyish smile and moppy white hair, helped save the land east of Fargo-Moorhead near the farming town of Glyndon where he now watches for birds. He spent most of his career as Director of Grassland Stewardship with the Nature Conservancy, which restored the 6,500-acre Bluestem Grassland Preserve – one of the last and largest grasslands high in the north of the country.

But look at the reserve on a map today and you’ll see a small island of greenery, a speck of nature in the middle of one of the most weathered landscapes on the globe. It is surrounded by an ocean of monocultures, heavily plowed, for soybeans and corn. It is one of the only pockets of Minnesota prairie that has not been plowed or paved.

With its habitat destroyed, the state’s prairie chicken population dwindled to around 5,000, a tiny fraction of what it was. They are largely cut off from each other, confined to whatever patch of surviving grassland they were born into.

The thriving grounds, once a gravel pit, have been carefully restored by the Nature Conservancy and the birds have moved in, loving it better than a field they had been thriving in about a quarter of a mile.

Some mornings when the sky is clear, Winter can see the lights of Fargo from the blind. It’s amazing, he said, to think of all this modern world existing so close to something as natural, ancient and fascinating as a prairie chicken coop.

“They would never know something like this was happening here,” he said.

Many attempts have been made to reintroduce the birds, capturing them from healthy populations and releasing them into restored habitat. But few have led to long-term success. The best hope is to keep the existing populations safe and expand the preserved lands around them so they can spread naturally to other enclaves, keeping the gene pools diverse.

Scientists don’t know the magic number needed to survive and thrive to sustain a population. They know what can happen, because of another bird whose huge flocks once blocked the sky.

A man named James Varney set out to hunt prairie chickens one morning in September 1899 in Babcock, Wisconsin, about 400 miles from the future Bluestem Preserve. Instead, he came across a field of doves. A few rested in a tree. Varney raised his shotgun and took down the largest he could see, according to first-hand testimony from a member of the hunting party.

But when held dead in Varney’s hand, the hunters saw that it was not a dove. It was a carrier pigeon. In its desperation, the young bird apparently sought the safety of any flock it could find.

Homing pigeons once ruled the flyway, soaring together in the hundreds of millions. Settlers culled them, and the population crashed so quickly that it became clear that the species was counting on high numbers and had passed a point of no return. Varney’s prey was the last passenger pigeon that would be seen in the Upper Midwest. Fifteen years later, with the death of a carrier pigeon at the Cincinnati Zoo, the animal was declared extinct.

Winter, and a host of others involved with the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society, hope preserves like Bluestem will save prairie chickens from a similar fate.

There was a roll of thunder and distant flashes. Winter fidgeted in his seat as if he’d just been asked to report on a book he hadn’t read. It had been hours since the sun had risen.

“It’s a first for me in my career,” he said. “I don’t understand what’s going on. It confuses me, doesn’t it… Oh, there is! I see it now.”

Something moved in the tall grass. A small black head appeared. Then another, then three.

Then they walked on the mating grounds. At first it was just a handful, then 15. They fanned out and lined up as if commanded by a drill sergeant. There were no females yet.

Relieved but trying to shut up, Winter couldn’t help but laugh.

“I guaranteed that to so many people,” he said. “If they didn’t show up, I was going to have to go over there and drag them out.”

The birds filled the floor with their sound – a two-note, almost alien song – and echoed and repeated the notes like chanting monks.

Then they rushed at each other, charging heads forward, fighting for a space puzzle piece on the booming field. They jumped one foot in the air, cackled, puffed out their orange pouches around their necks, and pounded the ground with their feet, desperate to be seen by a hen.

They raised their long neck feathers, called quills, until they stood like two pointed ears of victory. There were more dives and cackling.

Pecking and fighting also serve a sneaky purpose, Winter said. Not only do they claim territory, but if they can mess up the other guy’s feathers or wing, or cause him to limp a bit when a hen appears, they can ruin his chances of mating and increase the their.

A hen has arrived. The males went into a full-throated fury, jumping higher, exploding harder. It passed, as if they were barren corn stalks swaying in the wind. Three tried harder than most, following her for about 50 yards across the field as she meandered. Two other hens showed up, with similar results.

If a hen is interested, she drops into the grass next to the male and makes herself available.

These hens have all gone astray. There would be no mating that day.

It was late in the morning then, and Winter was due to begin the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society’s annual conference to talk about threats and hopes, successes and failures. He opened the blind door and the birds dispersed, once again disappearing into cover.

They – and their human fans – would return the next dawn. As long as there are tallgrass prairies, with little breaks of tallgrass, they always will be.

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