Fest takes closer look at prairie chickens

Tony Parra

Lesser Prairie Chicken enthusiasts will be on their heels during the birds’ mating rituals at the 3rd Annual Prairie Chicken Festival in Milnesand.
Lesser Prairie Chicken Biologist Dawn Davis said the orientation is at 7 p.m., today and lek viewing will be on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Lek is defined as a mating ground. Davis will also help coordinate the festival.
Davis said the festival is completely booked with 100 participants paying $60 to visit the festival at Milnesand, approximately 37 miles south of Portales.
Tish McDaniel of Phalarope Consulting, an independent wildlife bird expert, said the event has become extremely popular over the years.
“It was amazing how successful it was (the first year),” McDaniel said. “We had to limit it to 100 people this year. It’s tough to accommodate people because of the limited resources (in Milnesand). People from Milnesand have been very cooperative. Some of the landowners provide a bed-and-breakfast setup.”
McDaniel has been involved with the festival since its inception.
Milnesand is a town with less than 50 people and contains the basics most rural towns in Roosevelt County do: a post office and fire department. Milnesand also has a general store and the Soutane Avian Research Center.
“It’s (people’s participation) getting better,” Jim Weaver, who lives 12 miles east of Milnesand and helps coordinate the festival, said. “People (from Milnesand) are more anxious to participate in it and they realize it’s good for the community. At first, they didn’t know what they needed to do, but now they feel comfortable participating in it.”
Davis said the area is perfect for lek viewing. The adult male has a yellow-orange comb over his eye, with dark, elongated head feathers which can be raised. He also has a circular pinkish unfeathered neck patch inflated when displaying.
“They (lesser prairie chicken males) are known for their mating rituals,” Davis said. “They inflate their air sacks and display their prominent yellow combs to attract the females. They can be heard a mile away.”
Davis said the participants are driven in vans to areas most popular for mating, and usually arrive at around 4:30 a.m. McDaniel said the dancing rituals begin before sunrise and conclude between 8 and 9 a.m.
“Often times, two males will face off,” Davis said about the competitiveness. “They participate in an antagonistic sparing. They will do flutter jumps with each other.”
Davis said the lesser prairie chickens select the Milnesand area because of a shinnery oak terrain that surrounds the community — the shinnery oak plant is a food source for the birds. She said viewers only have a two-week window in which to see the rituals. The lesser prairie chickens mate in the first two weeks of April, according to Davis.