This report by CBS4’s Paul Day originally aired in 2010. It was featured again in April 2011 on the CBS4 program Colorado Getaways.
WRAY, Colo. (CBS4) – The dance of the Greater Prairie Chicken was once in danger of being described only in history books. Thanks to conservation efforts on the eastern plains of Colorado, there has been a remarkable recovery of this once-endangered species and its unique mating ritual.
Hundreds sign up for weekend tour packages — courtesy of the town of Wray — every spring to do some serious bird watching.
A CBS4 crew was there in 2010 as district wildlife manager Josh Melby led a group to private land where the spectacle unfolds right after dawn.
“We’re going to be right in the middle of the prairie chicken habitat,” said Melby.
The trip is not for the faint of heart, but instead for serious bird watchers who are willing to wait.
“The nice, cold wind will blow in, everybody will stare out into the blackness and start looking at me, like ‘What the heck did you get me into? I could still be sleeping,'” said Melby.
The group boarded a school bus for the 20 minute pre-dawn drive into the prairie at the Kitzmiller Ranch outside of Wray. They were headed to a viewing trailer near the lek, a special part of the farm field where the prairie chickens gather every year for the mating ritual.
Once the ritual got under way, it was a thrilling site. A “booming” sound announced the arrival of the male birds.
“Love the sound of the low booming, then they start their crazy cackling,” said one bird watcher.
The sound can be heard for miles.
The males raised ear-like feathers over their heads. They also puffed up their orange air sacks in their necks.
“There are three holes inside of it, so they push air past those and it is like blowing across the top of a Coke bottle,” said Melby.
The lek served as the dance floor for the birds’ mating ritual.
“They are kind of territorial and they want their little patch of prairie so they can do their dance on it and hopefully bring in a female and impress her,” said Melby.
“I think they’re really funny. I’m really impressed with how energetic they are,” said one bird watcher.
As the males strutted and squared off, females began to appear.
“They’re putting on quite a show. It’s amazing how the females ignore the whole thing. It’s making the males look crazy,” said one bird watcher.
Another said, “I like the way the hens don’t give a fig, they just waltz right by.”
The males stomped their feet and continued their dance. The ritual lasted for about 90 minutes, then fizzled out as quickly as it began.
The tour ended with a hearty breakfast back at the Kitzmiller Ranch.
Greater prairie chickens have bounced back from near extinction in the 1930s thanks to aggressive conservation efforts.
One passionate bird watcher from Florida said this tour kicked off his journey to learn more about prairie birds.
“My quest for my vacation is to see three different types of chickens in the state. So I’m first starting here, then I’m going to see the lesser prairie chicken, then I’m going to Gunnison to see the Gunnison sage grouse.”
Learn more about the Greater Prairie Chicken Dance tours at the Wray Chamber of Commerce website.