On Birds and Bards: Central Wisconsin’s Prairie Chicken Festival

A territorial encounter between male Greater Prairie Chickens.  Photo: Len Backus.

A territorial encounter between male Greater Prairie Chickens. Photo: Len Backus.

Birding enthusiasts who hoped to take part in Greater Prairie Chicken watching at the Central Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival can sleep in this weekend: all four viewing venues are filled to capacity.

Don’t be discouraged, though, because there are many ways to participate in this annual celebration of the state’s grassland habitats. Each of seven locations will host its own variety of activities that incorporate art, science and literature, including a day-long “non-urban” literary festival featuring Wisconsin bards and book authors.

The festival began at dawn this morning (April 17) with the first Prairie Chicken viewing experience. Those lucky enough to have made a reservation to the Buena Vista Wildlife Area event–the early birds, you might say–saw male Prairie Chickens vying for female attention. Part of this annual mating ritual includes an activity called “booming:” the male inflates the orange-colored air sac on his neck, emitting a sound that can be heard as far as a mile away. Additional tours of the Prairie Chickens booming grounds are scheduled for Paul J. Olson Wildlife Area in Rudolph and Mead Wildlife Area in Milladore–but again, they’re booked solid.

Everyone can still attend the Wisconsin Center for the Book‘s Literary Bash taking place tomorrow (Saturday, April 18) at Grant Elementary School in Wisconsin Rapids. Featured speakers include the Cooperative Children’s Book Center‘s Megan Schliesman, who will recommend nature books for youth; travel writer Mary Bergin; Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Glen Moberg; and others.

Booming Bob greets a 2008 festival goer. Photo: Jodi Hermson.

There’s lots for kids to do, too: arts and crafts activities, maple syrup tasting, bird-banding demonstrations and guest appearances by festival mascot “Booming Bob.” At the Literary Bash, poster contest winners from Grant Elementary’s “Celebrating Grasslands” competition will be honored, as will the youth winners of the Letters about Literature competition, a state and national student writing contest coordinated by Wisconsin author Tom Montag.

And this evening, Rapids Mall hosts a Nature Art Crawl where festival goers can purchase the works of central Wisconsin artists and learn from area conservation organizations. In addition, enjoy a screening of the film “Northern Harrier” by Wild Journey Films and the performance “Red Land” by Academie de la Dance.

In its fourth year, the festival has rapidly gained in popularity, even as Greater Prairie Chicken numbers in Wisconsin have declined. Last year’s estimate put the population at 1,000 in Wisconsin, down from 55,000 in 1955. One of the main goals of the annual festival is to support the efforts of landowners who wish to preserve the habitats of the Greater Prairie Chicken and other wildlife. Festival activities will include information on land management practices and programs that can assist them in their efforts.

Soon after the dust settles on the booming grounds this year, planners will begin preparing for the 2010 event. So if you want an up close look (and listen) at the Prairie Chicken in Wisconsin, remember to plan early for next year’s fest. Meanwhile, here’s a YouTube video from the Missouri Department of Conservation to show you what you can expect to see.

–Tammy Kempfert

3 Responses to On Birds and Bards: Central Wisconsin’s Prairie Chicken Festival

  1. Troy Schliepp says:

    What is the current pouplation of prairie chickens?

  2. Troy,

    I couldn’t easily find the national numbers, but here’s what the Central Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival site had to say about Wisconsin populations: “The GPC of Wisconsin is one of the most researched grouse species in the United States. Yet, like many grassland species nationwide, it’s numbers are declining. It is estimated that there are approximately 1,000 GPC in Wisconsin in 2008, down from 2,500 in 1950 and 55,000 in 1930. Habitat loss due to increasing residential development, conversion of pasture lands to row crops or upland cranberries, tree planting, and more are the cause. Hunting GPC in Wisconsin was banned in 1955.”

  3. Troy Schliepp says:

    What about the 2009 reports from the booming grounds in Wisconsin?

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