A male greater prairie chicken booms, part of the annual mating ritual that is on display during the Central Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival, April 11-13.

A male greater prairie chicken booms, part of the annual mating ritual that is on display during the Central Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival, April 11-13. Photo By Evan M. Barrientos

Prairie chickens' mating ritual booming in central Wisconsin

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Guys, take note: Those lame pick-up lines are old news. If you want to catch a girl, booming is all the rage.

At least that's the case in the grasslands of central Wisconsin, where every April male greater prairie chickens jump, bob, flair their feathers, puff their plumage and emit a deep cooing sound to attract their female counterparts. Known as booming, it's one of the most unique mating rituals by a species in Wisconsin, and the short window for seeing it makes it all the more special.

Female prairie chickens aren't the only ones who are drawn to the show. Birdwatchers flock to leks, or booming grounds, in the Buena Vista Wildlife Area near Stevens Point to witness the ritual during the Central Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival held April 11-13 this year.

The festival is hosted by the Golden Sands RC&D, a conservation group that got its start in 1972 and networks with nine counties in central Wisconsin on issues related to conservation across county lines.

One of those issues is the prairie chicken. According to Golden Sands project manager Mike Copas, millions of prairie chickens roamed the country before European settlement. As of the 1930s, they numbered about 55,000. In 1955, hunting prairie chickens in Wisconsin was prohibited, and the bird's population hovered around 2,500. In 2013, there were around 600 birds in the state, Copas said.

"Agriculture primarily, and residential development are the two biggest threats for habitat loss for the prairie chicken," Copas said.

The prairie chicken, as its name suggests, lives in open, grassy areas. According to Copas, central Wisconsin has the largest contiguous tract of grassland east of the Mississippi River, but the species of grouse is listed as threatened in the state.

In 2006, Golden Sands decided to host a festival to raise awareness about the bird's declining population and habitat.

In the chilly pre-dawn hours, birdwatchers follow volunteers like Peggy Farrell to a trailhead in the Buena Vista Wildlife Area. Farrell is the director of Becoming an Outdoors-Woman, or BOW, a nonprofit organization run out of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point that leads hands-on outdoor workshops for adult women. Farrell has been leading birdwatchers to the Buena Vista blinds for more than 10 years.

The blinds, anywhere from a 5- to 20-minute walk from the trailhead, are basic wooden structures with benches and small windows for watching the spectacle. Viewers must arrive before the action starts around dawn and remain until the last female leaves the grounds, usually two to three hours later.

As the sun rises, Farrell said, you begin to hear the first booming call of the prairie chickens as they enter the grounds. The low-pitched, "woo, wooo, wooooo" sound can be heard from up to a mile away.

"They make funny noises and stomp their feet and jump and flutter their wings and they have mock fights between males," Farrell said. "And with any luck, that display will get a hen or two or more out onto the mating grounds."

The booming sound is a mix between an owl's hoot and the cooing of a mourning dove, and it's punctuated by a higher-pitched quack-like noise the males emit as they stomp their feet, bob their heads and inflate their beautiful orange necks to catch females' attention.

While Farrell said there's obviously no guarantee of seeing the display — this is wildlife, after all — 98% of the time people are going to see prairie chickens. And most of the time, the birds are close enough to provide excellent photographic opportunities.

"The chickens have been known to jump on top of the blinds and stomp on top of them," she said.

And even in a case of bad luck like last year when students from Stevens Point didn't see a prairie chicken, they aren't the only show in town.

"People see all different kinds of things," Copas said, including Henslow's sparrows and upland sandpipers, both threatened species.

But the prairie chickens are the main attraction, and even for people like Farrell who have been watching the ritual for years, it never gets old.

"I get a kick out of them. I always take time to go out and see them myself," she said. "They always make me laugh. They're comical, they're beautiful. It's not something that you can just see anywhere. Their uniqueness and their behaviors are what really drew me to them."

Other events: The festival also includes a Grasslands Gala, April 5 from 3 to 7 p.m., at the Central Wisconsin Children's Museum. Admission is free (donations are appreciated), and the gala includes vendors, speakers, music and children's activities, including a poster contest for a chance to win two seats in one of the blinds the following weekend.

After watching the booming, festival-goers can enjoy a hot breakfast and presentation from experts about the status of the prairie chicken.

Local groups will also lead birdwatching tours on Saturday and Sunday afternoon through the grasslands.

Saturday night brings the Bloomin' Brewery Bash at Central Waters Brewing Co. in Amherst. The brewery will serve a specially labeled Bloomin' Brew Ale and offer tours. There will also be live music, a silent auction, raffles, food and more. The celebration is from 3 to 9 p.m. and is open to those 21 and older.

How much it will set you back: Spots in a viewing blind during the festival cost $45 per person and can be reserved onlineor by calling (715) 343-6215. Copas said spots fill up in advance, and last year there was a long waiting list.

Other events during the festival are free and open to the public.

Other viewing opportunities: If you can't make the festival, there are a few other opportunities to see the prairie chicken's mating ritual.

UW-Stevens Point leads trips to the blinds in April, but Farrell said the only spots left this year are on Easter Weekend. The cost is $15 per adult and $10 for kids under 18, college students, or seniors over 55. For availability, call (715) 346-4681.

The Milk Crystal Dairy farm near Junction City also has viewing opportunities, said owner Carl Flaig, though the hard winter has reduced the flock. A donation of $25 is encouraged. Call (715) 570-0782 or see prairiechickenviewing.webs.com for more information.

Getting there: Trips to the viewing blinds depart from the Kiwanis Lodge, 3221 80th St. S, in Kellner, about 170 miles northwest of Milwaukee via I-94, I-39 and Highway 73.

More information: For more on the Central Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival, see prairiechickenfestival.org.

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