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Venus and a crescent moon dominate the pre-dawn sky, but already the prairie is alive with the mating songs of birds. Dave Trauba, manager of the Lac qui Parle refuge, makes early morning runs to listen for the booming calls of male prairie chickens to monitor how the re-introduced birds are doing. In each of the last three years, he has heard fewer prairie chickens. Tribune photos by Tom Cherveny

Bell ringer days relaying a quiet message

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WATSON -- Venus and a crescent moon hold court in a star-filled sky, and a red blush on the horizon gives promise of day break to come.

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Dave Trauba is already out of the pickup truck, miles from home and surrounded in all directions by open grasslands.

He listens.

There is a wild chorus of bird song greeting the coming of day, and as the inhabitants announce their presence he jots down notes.

He is taking roll call.

In the next two hours he will make a series of stops along remote, gravel roads in the area around Lac qui Parle and Marsh Lakes. He will be treated to everything from a visit by a curious short-eared owl and the flight of a flustered marbled godwit, to the squawks of countless pheasants and steady babble of distant geese.

He listens only for the puff-cheeked, whooos and the occasional cackles and whoops of the prairie chicken on their spring booming grounds.

It's what he calls a "bell ringer'' day, or one of those rare April days when not even a whisper of wind is stirring and sound can carry for miles. During much of April and early May he takes advantage of every bell ringer day to make this circuit and listen, all for a purpose.

Trauba, the manager of the Lac qui Parle wildlife refuge for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is part of an effort to re-introduce prairie chickens to a project area. It stretches along the Minnesota River Valley from the Lac qui Parle refuge to the Big Stone National Wildlife refuge. The Chippewa and Plover Prairies, as well as protected grasslands that are part of wildlife and waterfowl production areas, are being managed with the goal of helping the birds re-establish themselves.

Prairie chickens were once so numerous on Minnesota's western grasslands that hunters filled wagons with their harvest, he pointed out. But as the grasslands disappeared, so did the birds. By the late 1940s the distinctive boom of the prairie chickens was no longer a part of the spring chorus on the prairie.

They returned in 1999, when an eight-year project got underway to re-introduce the birds to the area. There is a viable population of native prairie chickens in northwestern Minnesota. Dr. John Toepfer, one of the country's leading researchers on prairie chickens, and his assistants trapped the birds at night and made red eye runs to Lac qui Parle to release them.

The transplanting stopped three years ago, and ever since the birds have been on their own.

Their numbers here are declining.

"We're not getting the reproduction (needed),'' said Trauba.

His early-morning roll calls over the last few years have shown a steady decline in the population of male prairie chickens and the booming grounds on which they perform their courtship rituals for females. This year he could confirm no more than six or possibly seven booming grounds in a project area that once held a certain 11.

There are now only 35 to 45 males in the project area, down from over 60 males last year and more than 90 two years earlier.

Some of the birds still carry bands, indicating that the habitat has been suitable to sustain the released birds.

The lack of reproduction is due mainly to the colorful, but non-native game bird whose frequent squawking can't be ignored.

Pheasants practice what is known as "parasitism.'' They employ the same notorious tactic of the cowbird, and lay their eggs in the nests of prairie chickens.

The dynamics of parasitism in the project area isn't fully understood, but the evidence is clear. Trauba and others working on the project have found many prairie chicken nests holding pheasant eggs.

On behalf of the prairie chickens, the Minnesota DNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and private organizations have worked to provide healthy, native prairie and grasslands absent of trees and "predator perches'' in the project area.

The marbled godwits and pintail ducks that Trauba finds nesting in the area are proof of the success of the effort. The same habitat that benefits prairie chickens benefits pheasants, too.

The grassland habitat has also attracted sharp-tail grouse back to the area. Sharp-tail grouse were native here and actually dominated much of the western Minnesota grasslands before prairie chicken populations exploded during the early years of European settlement.

Trauba said the sharp-tail grouse breed and mix with the prairie chickens. There are now offspring or hybrid birds in the project area. His morning listening sessions include keeping a keen ear for the hooting and cooing sounds that sharp-tail grouse make; they are more difficult to discern than the booming of the male prairie chicken.

The sharp-tail's return has complicated the dynamics of the prairie chicken project, but the "smoking gun'' for their decline is unquestionably the parasitism by pheasants, he said.

The importance of what happens here goes well beyond returning the music and beauty of the prairie chicken to the Upper Minnesota River Valley.

The long-term goal is to develop a patchwork of grasslands re-connecting the area with the native population of prairie chickens in the northwestern part of the state. The hope is to allow the birds from both populations to connect and mix; it would diversify the population and prevent the genetic isolation of the birds.

Trauba said another goal in establishing a second, viable population in Minnesota is for the same reason we have second string players on football teams. There is always the risk that a calamitous series of events --an outbreak of disease and harsh winters -- could threaten the population of prairie chickens in one area. Having two locations improves the overall survival odds for the species, he explained.

He has not yet given up hope.

And ultimately, what we learn may prove as important as whether or not this stocking of prairie chickens takes hold. We may gain new insights into what it takes to make a successful re-introduction, or we might better appreciate how critical it is to protect the native populations that do remain, he pointed out.

He volunteers his early morning listening hours to the project, and they come at a time of year when he sees long, hard days.

But Trauba said he will continue this spring time ritual for as long as it takes, or until he hears the last bird booming.

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