The first rhythmic and haunting cooing begins as the night sky fades and sunrise begins. The short grass prairie booming grounds prepares for a display found nowhere else in Iowa.
This is prairie chicken country and April 6 will mark the 16th Annual Prairie Chicken Day at the Kellerton Wildlife Management Area, in Ringgold County. Activities begin around 6 a.m., originating from the elevated viewing platform on 300th Avenue, southwest of Kellerton.
This annual ritual begins as early as mid-March and lasts through April. Male prairie chickens meet at the booming grounds every morning to display, spar and fight with other males trying to catch the eye of the females watching nearby.
“They will be out there until 8 or so, when they begin to slow down,” said Stephanie Shepherd, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Diversity Program.
She said there are typically 20-40 birds that use the lake at Kellerton, and they will display each morning regardless of the weather.
“Some mornings you can hear them and some you can’t. They are out there every day, but are less active if it’s raining or really cloudy,” she said. While there will be some spotting scopes available to use, attendees are encouraged to bring their own or a set of binoculars.
The prairie chicken population at Kellerton has benefited from a collaboration between the states of Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska, and the Nature Conservancy, Blank Park Zoo and the Ringgold County Conservation Board. The collaboration extended to area cattle producers who help manage 30 percent of the grasslands through grazing.
“There has been a lot of collaboration to improve the landscape across the state line to recreate 160,000 acres of rolling hills of grass with few trees,” Shepherd said. “This partnership benefits not only the prairie chicken, but other grassland species as well.”
One grassland species in particular, the Henslow’s sparrow, has benefited from this partnership. The Henslow’s sparrow is listed as a state threatened species in Iowa but the population at Kellerton is so large the area has been recognized as globally important for this species.
The Kellerton Wildlife Management Area was dedicated as Iowa’s first Bird Conservation Area in 1999 when it simultaneously became the first grassland Bird Conservation Area in the country. It was formally dedicated as a Globally Important Bird Area in 2018.