Elizabeth Bacon Custer, wife of the infamous General George Armstrong Custer, once said of the couple’s stint near Hays, Kansas, during the American Indian Wars of the mid-to-late 19th century, “There was enough desperate history in that little town in one summer to make a whole library of dime novels.” Today, with much of that desperate history confined to museums and roadside placards, Hays is more likely to inspire a passing curiosity or humble yelp of astonishment: What’s that big buffalo statue doing there? or Look at all those vultures roosting above the Dillon’s parking lot!
This April, with my mom, I visited Hays for the second annual Kansas Lek Treks Prairie-Chicken Festival, a three-day affair dedicated to greater and lesser prairie chickens, two endangered and charmingly clownish species of bird. Every spring, the birds congregate in communal areas called “leks,” patches of suitable grassland where males perform their courtship displays in hopes of a brief bout of copulation. The term “lek” apparently derives from a Swedish word that translates, roughly, to “child’s play,” which is both misleading and not.
Activity on a prairie chicken lek has a halting, ungainly quality that my mom, during our time in Hays, compared to the humiliations and clumsy overtures of a middle school dance. In this way it does resemble child’s play: a bunch of guileless animals trying to burn off energy in a common space. And the chickens, with their colorful air sacs and stiff movements, look more than a little like oversized wind-up toys set loose in a field. But as at a school dance, there are rules of hierarchy and influence to contend with on the lek, a spirit of competition that undercuts any of the freedom implied by that endearing Swedish etymology.
Beyond the dramas of the lek, the lives of prairie chickens are only getting harder. Their plight was explained to us during the opening reception of this year’s Lek Treks festival, hosted on a windy Thursday evening in Hays’s Sternberg Museum of Natural History, a world-class institution known for its fish-within-a-fish fossil and other archaeological wonders. A confusing spread of “heavy hors d’oeuvres” was available for grazing: flatbread pizza, chicken (!) quesadillas, a mysterious white-green dip, and a vegetable tray, quickly decimated. In a large front lobby lined with taxidermied animals and headed by an enormous hanging statue of a pliosaur, rows of tables had been arranged to seat an assembly of what I estimated to be seventy or eighty birders.
Birders are a funny bunch, mostly—at this festival, anyway—white, older-aged, and of a delightfully inefficient temperament. In general, they talk and move at a relaxed pace, and are eager to dedicate long moments of their lives to matters that many people simply whisk past. On a geology tour my mom and I took on our third day in Hays, the group revolted and made the guide turn the van around just to take pictures of a flock of turkeys. Later, about a half hour was spent on a quiet debate over whether a falcon in a far-off tree was a kestrel or a much more uncommon merlin. I listened to a man trying in vain for several minutes to describe the position of the falcon to the woman next to him: “It’s in the backmost tree, up there on the white branch. There are a lot of light branches. But no! There’s only one white branch.” Over the course of the trip, time seemed to slow down to match the geologic scale suggested by the ancient mating rituals of the prairie chickens and the landscape that surrounds them: sprawling fields of grass punctuated by chalk formations left over from Kansas’s past beneath the Cretaceous-era Western Interior Seaway.
At the opening reception, my mom and I watched a presentation outlining the differences between greater and lesser prairie chickens: the former has orange air sacs, the latter reddish; the former makes a “booming” sound, the latter gobbles; the former is larger than a football, the latter roughly the size of a football. The presentation also enumerated the factors currently imperiling the survival of both species. Kansas ranks last in the country for its percentage of publicly owned land, and the remains of its untouched prairie, the chickens’ habitat, are constantly being fought over by private landowners, government officials, energy and agricultural interests, and conservation groups. Performing at the reception was Dennis Rogers, an educator and a member of the Navajo Nation, who made a point to say he asked to appear at the event. Between ceremonial dances, he spoke about Kansas attorney general Kris Kobach’s freshly filed lawsuit (joining with Texas and Oklahoma legislature) against the federal government for its listing of the lesser prairie chicken as an endangered species.
Since becoming officially endangered in January, the birds have become a minor right-wing talking point: “This prairie chicken is Biden’s latest weapon in his war on fossil fuels,” went one recent headline on Fox News. In a news release about his lawsuit, Kobach complained about the potential effects of the listing on the expansion of the state’s oil, cattle, and wind power industries, and claimed that lesser prairie chicken populations will recover once drought ends in the region. This is, of course, ridiculous: Kansas’s drought is at least partially being driven by the demands of irrigation-mad agribusiness, which is draining aquifers faster than the state’s historically low rainfall levels can refill them. And for all the negative contributions of the drought, the sharp decline of prairie chicken populations has just as much to do with human development breaking up the species’ habitat. Widespread ranching operations and ever-proliferating industrial structures such as oil derricks, gas wells, and wind turbines all tend to frighten the birds away, fragmenting their already reduced range. But as always, the quest for growth trudges on with little regard for its casualties. Earlier this month, the US Senate passed a resolution to overturn the prairie chicken’s endangered species designation. For most of the people with the power to save them, said Rogers, “the prairie chicken has no value.”
If only we could get those people out on a lek! Though the rituals of mating are demanding for the birds, the whole spectacle is majestic enough to turn any onlooker, I think, into a true prairie chicken believer. It wasn’t until a few days after that opening night reception, on the last morning of the festival, that my mom and I had the opportunity to view the larger—and, in the news cycle, much less embattled—of the two species: the greater prairie chicken. I write with no irony that it was an experience bordering on, maybe even toppling over into, the divine.
To witness the courtship displays of prairie chickens, you have to wake up before the birds. Our group left in two vans from Hays’s Best Western Plus at 4 AM. The festival organizers, in an email sent days beforehand, advised us to drink no water or coffee that morning unless it was medically necessary: taking a bathroom break mid-courtship would scare the chickens off. After a longish drive down lonesome prairie roads, chatting along the way—“It’s very difficult to tell the difference between a snowy owl and a plastic bag,” one of my vanmates said—we crossed through a cattle gate and arrived in a darkened field. This was the lek, though we couldn’t see much of it yet. The stars above were stunningly clear, a sight that almost everyone ignored, instead staying inside the vehicles to avoid the wind. In the headlights, our chaperones set up a line of camouflaged blinds—dome-like tents with slim eye-level windows cut along half of the structure, like the visor of a helmet. Around 6, the vans took off, we entered the blinds in packs of four, and soon, the show commenced.
These first moments, with the light of the sun still only a tint on the horizon, felt like we had stumbled upon a spectacle not intended for mortal beings. The birds unveiled themselves slowly, first by sound and then by sight. Despite what you might expect from the term, the “booming” call of the greater prairie chicken sounds, in reality, more like a mournful coo. When several chickens let out the call at once, they meld together into a swirling, plaintive chant. Before the round shadows of their bodies scampered into view, it was easy to imagine this avian choir as a clan of spirits shuffling past, locked out of time but appearing for a moment in their midwestern haunt. As the light came up, that lofty illusion dispersed, and our awe spread out into a much more earthly and comical delight.
Prairie chickens, in the brightness of day, are plainly ridiculous creatures. That’s particularly true of the males. Male prairie chickens have long feathers called pinnae on either side of their heads, a feature that makes them resemble plump, startled rabbits as much as birds. The feather patterns on their tails have the look of handprints rendered in white paint. Vibrant and bulbous, the air sacs on the sides of their necks bring to mind egg-sized water balloons. Before they stretch out their necks and inflate the sacs, the chickens stamp their feet rapidly in place, enacting a miniature Flashdance. Female prairie chickens, with duller coloring and a stately bearing, come across as far more dignified, though they do occasionally squabble among themselves. But the main action on the lek, far more frequent and protracted than fights between females or even pairings between females and males, is the never-ending power play of the males.
During our morning in the blinds, the face-offs and scuffles between male prairie chickens so overshadowed what you might assume to be the main activity of the species’ mating ritual—the mating—that spotting the instances of copulation became a sort of game. Unless you paid careful attention to the sex of the birds, their brawls and their more lustful tangles were nearly indistinguishable. Both involved a lot of running, hopping, and wanton ruffling of feathers. I think I only witnessed two consummated couplings, characterized by the female chickens’ rearrangement of their plumage after the act. This full-body shaking aids the fertilization process, but also seemed to help the birds regain their composure. Amid the excitement, my mom pointed out one male, lingering near our blind, who made no attempt to mate or tussle with anyone. “He’s staying out of it,” she said. Peggy, a companion in the tent with us, agreed: “He’s a pacifist.”
As the morning went on and the females exited the scene, the male chickens continued to pair off in contests of dominance that gradually lost their vigor and, one could sense, their purpose. After we’d been watching for a few hours, the lek was filled almost entirely with males resting across from each other, dozing and surveying the locale as if perched at café tables. “Maybe they’re brothers,” Peggy speculated, looking on at one pair. “Just two guys figuring it out.”
Out on the lek, I thought of a poster I’d seen the first night up on the Sternberg Museum’s bulletin board. It showed a diminutive cave salamander along with a line of text: “Sometimes it is the smallest things in life that matter most.” It’s a saccharine phrase, but the poster was cute, and the Kansas Lek Treks Festival proved its truth to me repeatedly. The existence of greater and lesser prairie chickens may very well be snuffed out in our time, one loss among many thousands. But the world, to my mind, will lose some luster if they leave us. A few minutes after 9 AM, all at once, the remaining prairie chickens flew from the field, down a slope, and out of sight into farther grassland. A hawk might’ve scattered them, or a sound we couldn’t hear—or maybe they just agreed it was time to go.