Kellerton, Iowa – The haunting coos begin before the sunrise as dark shapes appear on the lek, seemingly out of nowhere. Jumping, charging and sparring – this is serious competition among male prairie chickens to show their worthiness as mates to the females watching nearby.
This ancient ritual is repeated each spring on the short grass booming ground that is part of the Kellerton Bird Conservation Area, in Ringgold County. Kellerton was among a handful of public areas where prairie chickens from Kansas were released in the late 1980s and early 1990s as part of a reintroduction effort. It is currently home to Iowa’s only prairie chicken population.
The area received nearly 500 additional birds from Nebraska from 2012-2017 to diversify the genetics and give the population a boost.
Between the Kellerton area and the Dunn Ranch, just across the border in Missouri, there are between 100-150 prairie chickens that call the Grand River Grasslands home. The habitat is managed through a partnership between The Nature Conservancy, Missouri Department of Conservation and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
A lot of habitat work has been done on these areas and on private lands nearby, with the goal of creating expansive treeless grasslands necessary for the prairie chickens to survive.
“Ideally, we’d like to have 800 birds here, which would make it a sustainable population but we’re nowhere near that,” said Stephanie Shepherd, wildlife biologist with the Iowa DNR’s Wildlife Diversity Program. “Prairie chickens are like other ground nesting birds that struggle with cool wet springs, and icy winters, and the weather just is not cooperating for prairie chickens to thrive.”
While the habitat focus was intended for prairie chickens, a secondary benefit is to grassland birds that require similar expansive habitats. With all the improvements on and near Kellerton, the area was the first Bird Conservation Area dedicated in Iowa and it has been recognized as a Globally Important Bird Area for grassland birds
Prairie Chicken Day Sunrise, April 9
After a two-year hiatus, the popular Prairie Chicken Day has returned.
The Iowa DNR is hosting a prairie chicken viewing day on April 9, beginning at sunrise at the viewing platform, west of the main lek, on the Kellerton Bird Conservation Area. The DNR will have staff available to answer questions and additional spotting scopes to see the birds.
“The prairie chickens are most active and visible from middle March through middle April, and they boom at sunrise and again sunset,” said Shepherd. “Sunset offers better viewing because the platform faces east so the sun will be at your back but there may not be as many birds as there are in the morning.”
There is no cost to attend.