Thousands of acres now occupied by prime farmland once protected an ocean of prairie grasses.  But a growing restoration project is bringing back the sights and sounds of Iowa’s long-lost native bird: The Prairie Chicken.
It’s an hour before sunrise on the chilly plains of south-central Iowa… when a steady stream of headlights begin to resemble the final scene from Field of Dreams. One-by-one, the vehicles descend on a small parking lot surrounded by acres of restored prairie.  Birdwatchers, families, and retirees begin to take their front row seats for a show they’ll likely hear before the day’s first light sneaks over the horizon.

This is sunrise at the Kellerton Grasslands…home to a growing number of prairie chickens. A native bird some Iowans may have heard of but have rarely witnessed with their own eyes.

Chad Paup, Iowa DNR: “Out here today they’re seeing the courtship and this mating ritual. The males start this booming process in March and right through the middle of May.  Generally, the females will come out in mid-April. The interesting thing about the greater prairie chickens is the air sacks they make larger and that’s how they make the humming noise that they do and its really awesome.  And you can hear it for quite a ways away.”

Basking in an early morning glow, Iowa’s prairie chickens look as vibrant as ever. But our state’s tiny population is only a fraction of what it was one century ago.  Homesteaders and the state’s first farmers pushed the birds off their native habitat of prairie grass – and cultivated the rich soil for generations of agricultural production.  By the 1980’s, prairie chickens had largely disappeared from Iowa’s countryside.

The state’s modern population rebound has not been easy. DNR wildlife specialist Chad Paup says today’s small number of less than 50 birds was decades in the making.

Chad Paup, Iowa DNR Wildlife Biologist: “We essentially extricated them out of the state. We brought these birds in from Kansas in the early 90’s. We tried a couple locations but this is the only place they really took hold.”

Although they’ve survived and prospered for nearly two decades, the cluster of Kellerton prairie chickens face future obstacles.  According to Paup, the small number of birds will likely confront genetic viability issues. Caused by inbreeding, future generations could breed eggs that fail to hatch or birds could perpetuate poor genetic diversity.
It would be a blow to one of Iowa’s growing resources for bird watching. The boom and hum of Iowa prairie chickens can bring more than one hundred visitors to the rolling plains near Mt. Ayr, Iowa.  In an effort to document the flood of springtime visitors, a group of Iowa State students surveyed many of the region’s binocular-wielding attendants.

Peter Fritzell, Iowa DNR Human Dimensions Specialist: “Bird watching is not physically demanding so a lot of people can benefit. But it wasn’t just old people here, you saw families and young people here.”

The economic impact of guests was apparent in the DNR’s survey: More than 85 percent of the visitors were non-locals traveling over 15 miles.  And 80 percent came to the region for one reason: To witness Iowa’s prairie chickens.

Peter Fritzell, Iowa DNR Human Dimensions Specialist: “Those people will stop at gas stations, stop at the store, stay in a hotel room and the locals can see that benefit.”

Kellerton’s springtime stars have a following and that attention could bring more conservation dollars for an initiative looking to expand.  Paup envisions southern Iowa could one day become a bird watching destination on par with other notable mid-western sites.

Chad Paup, Iowa DNR Wildlife Biologist: “Just like the sandhill cranes in Nebraska and eagles on the Mississippi and a whole host of wildlife species.”