A New Breed of Prairie Chicken…

GOVE COUNTY – Tuesday morning had all the makings of a complete disappointment.

Researcher Erica Skorlinski holds a probable hybrid lesser/greater prairie chicken, just fitted with identifying leg bands.

The temperature was 42 degrees when we left Scott City at 5:30 a.m. and dropping into the 20s, with wind gusts more than 40 m.p.h. by the time we met Reid Plumb and Erica Skorlinski along a desolate gravel road half-way between the Middle of Nowhere and We’d Better Pack a Lunch and Bring Another Spare.

Plumb and Skorlinski are part of several teams of researchers spread across three parts of Kansas, mainly studying about everything possible about lesser prairie chickens. The rolling Smoky Hills the K-State based researchers are monitoring are known to be THE best lesser prairie chicken range in the world. Plumb said birds in that region are either holding their own in numbers or still increasing.  Such generally isn’t the case for the species the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is carefully considering for their endangered or threatened species list.

Plumb and others have had no difficulties finding healthy leks in the region. He said another biologist figures Gove County has more lessers than Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas combined. New Mexico is the only other state, besides Kansas, with the grassland grouse.

Still, my hosts weren’t optimistic when they set their wire cage traps in the dark long before daylight.

One reason Plumb had picked Tuesday’s two leks was because I’d expressed a curiosity about birds that are hybrid mixture of lesser and greater prairie chickens. With the wind and cold rain, Plumb thought it would be good to just see some birds. Having even one walk into a trap was almost an impossible desire amid the conditions.

But shortly after the dull grayness known as “daylight,” Plumb spotted a bird in a wire box on one lek. Plumb and Skorlinski ran into the brutal wind to get to the bird, wanting to get to it before it injured itself against the sides of the trap or caught hypothermia from the cold and wet.

Jogging up late behind them, I heard Plumb’s words of, “It’s a hybrid,” come through the wind. It was the only bird in a trap, and one of no more than two hybrid males he’d seen displaying amid a dozen or so lesser males at the lekthe past few days.

The air sack of a male hybrid prairie chicken carries the colors of both lesser and greater birds.

Back inside the truck, where the bird was weighed, measured in several places and had blood and feathers taken for testing, Plumb showed me what others had already said – hybrids carry characteristics of both lesser and greater birds. The male bird weighed about 1,000 grams, certainly between the averages of about 1,150 grams for greaters and about 920 grams for lessers. The coloring and the bird’s barring was a light brown, a shade between the two species.

The coolest part to me, was when Plumb lifted the long pinnae feathers and showed a deflated air sack that was mottled with yellow and reddish-orange, the colors of greaters and lessers, respectably. Plumb said inflated the color mixture is very obvious. The sound the birds make while displaying, which was inaudible over the gusty winds, is also said to be a neat mixture, too.

After the bird was fitted with some identifying leg bands, Skorlinski  released it and we watched it fly away. Interestingly at the other lesser prairie chicken lek, the researchers also found just one male in a trap. It appeared to be  pure greater prairie chicken.

Plumb said other researchers are trying to put tracking devices on some hybrid prairie chicken females, to learn more about their actions and see if they’re fertile and will raise young.

Chances are I’ll head to that remote part of Kansas again this summer. Seeing one of the few hybrids was a birding highlight. The chance, though slight, of seeing a hen with a brood of hybrid chicks would be even better…but I do hope it’s much warmer upon that return.

Researchers Erica Skorlinsk, left, and Reid Plumb run to remove a prairie chicken from a trap in Gove County Tuesday morning.