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Boom time on the prairie for prairie chickens

GLACIAL RIDGE PROJECT, Minn. -- The morning light hasn't risen on this prairie stage, and already we can hear the players tuning their pipes off in the distance.

GLACIAL RIDGE PROJECT, Minn. -- The morning light hasn't risen on this prairie stage, and already we can hear the players tuning their pipes off in the distance.

"Wooh-woo. Wooh-woo."

"Wooh-woo. Wooh-woo."

The haunting sound seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.

We've come here, two of us, to this Polk County refuge, site of one of the largest prairie restoration projects ever, for a close-up look at the elaborate courtship ritual male prairie chickens perform every spring.

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"Booming," it's called, and it's prairie pageantry at its finest.

Male chickens, who gather in groups of 20 or more, make the noise by inflating air sacs on their necks, which swell up like tiny orange bellows.

The penetrating sound has been known to carry more than three miles under ideal conditions.

For the past three years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy and the Crookston Convention and Visitors Bureau have teamed up to offer four viewing blinds at various sites on the Glacial Ridge lands for nature lovers to watch prairie chickens on their booming grounds.

The show peaks in mid-April most years and continues through late May.

Early start

On this day, the chickens hit the stage before dawn. Herald photographer Eric Hylden and I have only been settled in our blind a few minutes when the male chickens strike up the band in earnest.

There's no fanfare, just an eerie, hollow noise that brings an instant smile, even though it's 5:10 a.m., and I've already been up for 2Β½ hours.

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"Wooh-woo. Wooh-woo."

"Wooh-woo. Wooh-woo."

"Isn't this something?" Hylden whispers.

Indeed.

It's still too dark for photos, and so we listen and smile, breathing in the smell of a prairie that's been freshly burned to rejuvenate the tallgrass habitat.

Then we see them, about 20 prairie showmen, all doing their darndest to capture the favor of the single hen who's showed up to check out the action.

She wanders coyly across center stage as the male chickens entertain.

No doubt they sound good, but these amorous males also have to look good if they're going to have any chance at the object of their desires.

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And so they dance, heads down and tails erect, booming away and stomping their feet like feathered wind-up toys.

Other times, a few of the more excited birds will break into staccato-like clucks that build to a feverish pitch.

For lack of better comparison, the chickens then sound like members of the old British comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus when they'd dress up and talk like women:

"Ooohhh ..."

"Waawwwkk! Waawwkk!"

"Waawwwkk! Waawwkk!"

Later, we learn the excited males only make this sound when there's a female nearby.

A handful of booming males seem to hog the action at center stage while the lesser birds are relegated to the sidelines. That's not unusual, says Dan Svedarsky, chairman of the natural resources department at the University of Minnesota-Crookston and a prairie chicken authority.

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On a typical ground, he says, four or five males will account for 90 percent of the breeding, while the rest of the gang booms and stomps to no avail.

Some guys, it seems, have all the luck.

"They have little landmarks out there to mark their territory, and you can really see that," Svedarsky said.

Gaining popularity

With access to a show like this, it's no wonder visits to the prairie chicken blinds are, ahem, booming. According to Dave Bennett, manager of Rydell and Glacial Ridge national wildlife refuges, nearly 150 visitors from as far away as Texas and Utah reserved the blinds last year to watch prairie chickens.

There's no charge to use the blinds, but there's often a high demand, especially on weekends, so it's best to make reservations several weeks ahead of time.

Glacial Ridge and TNC each manage two blinds -- wooden buildings complete with doors and windows -- removing them in late May when booming season winds down. The Crookston Convention and Visitors Bureau takes care of booking arrangements.

"It's really a cooperative venture between all three of us," Bennett said.

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Bennett says prairie chickens generally use the same booming grounds every year. The birds prefer higher ground that's fairly open so they can see predators.

Viewing blinds don't seem to bother them, he says, as long as the people inside remain relatively still. That definitely was the case for Hylden and I. While we sat in relative comfort, the chickens were strutting and booming barely 30 feet away.

"We used to be fearful if we sat in the middle of the booming grounds, we'd disturb them, but we've now learned it doesn't matter," Bennett said.

The key, he said, is to get to the blinds before the birds do -- at least an hour before sunrise -- and stay on the grounds until the chickens are done booming. At the peak of mating season, they'll sometimes boom until 9 a.m.

Later in the year, they don't stay as long.

"It's winding down, so they're not going to be as active, not as aggressive," Bennett said. "They're still going to come, but they might spook easier. In the early part of booming time, they're so tuned in to the activity of mating they aren't going to scare off."

As forecast, the chickens knock off early, and the males fly off to do whatever male chickens do when they're not booming away to attract a mate.

We hope for an encore, but it's not to be.

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Hylden sums up the morning -- a nature photographer's dream -- in a single word:

"Spectacular."

- See the show:

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