It’s hard to imagine a name less befitting the grandeur of the endangered grouse than “lesser prairie chicken.” Trifling grouse, maybe? Boring ground bird? It’s hard to say which is the worst. All of them fall far short in capturing the striking physical appearance and peculiar mating behavior of the prairie denizen.
Sure, the lesser prairie chicken wambles a bit in flight because of a body that looks like a partially deflated balloon. But this bird also boasts coral-colored throat sacs, bright orange eye combs and expressive ear tufts that stand up like a headdress when the male is engaged in pageantry and droop in hangdog fashion following a rejection or a defeat in battle. It’s nature’s equivalent of the family station wagon tricked out with racing stripes and a rear spoiler. It’s impossible not to watch as it cruises by.
When lesser prairie-chickens lek (breed), a whole host of males will compete for some personal space in the sand sage so that they can entice females to view an elaborate mating display. The bird becomes a blaze of sunset colors as he stamps, shuffles, and bobs among the buffalo grass. He will genuflect before a female or perform a flutter jump with quick flaps of striped wings. The dance is a signal of both fitness and intelligence, and females choose the prospective mate with the smartest moves.
The sweetness of the song matters, too, and males will trill, chortle, drum and gobble in their attempt to win a female’s approval. This “boom” can travel a mile across the plains, sounding like approaching thunder.
It’s much easier to dismiss the lesser prairie chicken than, say, the superb bird of paradise. And many do, arguing that we shouldn’t bother with conserving the chicken if it means relegating fossil fuel interests. But because the threats to the lesser prairie chicken are myriad — we’ve nearly fragmented its habitat into oblivion — field studies have suggested that any further oil and gas development could completely eliminate the bird.
So, we can side with the same fossil fuel industry we’ve propped up with tax and energy policies for a century despite the enormous profits the industry already reaps and the enormous damage it inflicts. Or we can support an odd, brilliant bird whose diet is primarily comprised of insects that damage crops, and whose well-being serves as a bellwether for the health of an entire ecosystem. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act, an act that could protect it from extinction.
What makes the choice even easier to make is the knowledge that environmental protection efforts work and oil subsidies don’t. Ninety-nine percent of species granted Endangered Species Act protections have avoided extinction. In contrast, fossil fuel subsidies have forever failed to improve production or create jobs. They’re so ineffective that the costs, in terms of public health and production lost due to pollution, actually exceed the value of the subsidies.
The lesser prairie chicken is anything but trifling or boring. And its decline can teach us important lessons about the sensitivity and interdependence of ecosystems. The deliberate eradication of bison and prairie dogs, and the suppression of naturally occurring wildfires, allowed mesquite, red cedar and other woody plants to pervade the shortgrass prairie, disrupting prairie chicken breeding and nesting grounds. Mess with even one player in an ecosystem, and watch the rest suffer. If the losses snowball? Well, the extinction of the lesser prairie chicken could serve as a tipping point for the collapse of an iconic American landscape.
It’s past time we stopped propping up industries that pollute our prairies and started supporting the animals that lend them song and color. For heaven is here where the prairie chicken lives.