Those that drive about three miles south of Florence on U.S. 77 might have noticed some strange things happening on the east shoulder of the road. For the past few months, prairie chickens have been using the flat, short-grassed ditch area and adjoining pasture as their booming grounds.
In the early mornings and late evenings, several male prairie chickens can be seen dancing about trying to impress females and prove they are the man of the roost.
Marion County is on the edge of the greater prairie chicken’s range. The largest populations are in Kansas and Nebraska according to Kansas Department of Wildlife and Tourism, with the greatest concentration in Kansas found near Cassoday.
Game warden Marvin Peterson said this time of year is the birds’ mating season. From March through April anywhere from 40 to 10 birds will gather on what are called lek grounds to dance and show off for the hens.
“Usually they will stay on the lek grounds for a month and a half then leave,” Peterson said.
Chickens sometimes return to the same lek grounds depending on the condition of the area, Peterson said.
“If the grass is high or burned they won’t come back next year,” he said. “They look for areas with shorter grass and usually on a hill.”
He believes the three birds along U.S. 77 represent a small lek that has broken from a larger one nearby.
Peterson has been part of a team that tracks a large lek northwest of Durham.
“We probably have 40 years worth of information on it,” he said. “In the mornings and evenings we go out and listen for the birds, because we can hear them calling, and count the number of birds.”
Peterson said that over the past few years they have seen a resurgence of prairie chickens, which could be one of only a few benefits caused by recent area drought conditions.
“They seem to do better in years where there isn’t annual pasture burning,” he said. “Because of the drought there hasn’t been yearly burning for the past three or so years.”
Greater prairie chickens are one of two species found in Kansas. The lesser prairie chicken is found in Western Kansas, but is more rare than its greater counterpart.
According to Peterson, lesser prairie chickens require a shorter prairie habitat, and because that habitat is being depleted, they are uncommon.
“They’ve been in the news lately,” Peterson said. “The government is looking to put them on the threatened list.”
Last week the federal government placed the lesser prairie chicken on the threatened species list, a decision that is unpopular with Gov. Sam Brownback because of its potential impacts on oil, wind, and farming in the region.
Kansas Wildlife Fish and Game says the population this year declined to fewer than 18,000 birds, a 50 percent decrease from 2012.