The Search for a Rare Bird

A decade ago, while on a research project, I got up at 5:30 a.m. to hide behind a stack of sticks.  As the sun rose, I heard the booming call of the Prairie Chicken in the distance.  I now know that I had a rare experience–as you will see from this article about a new zoo conservation project.  ~Amy 

Lek Trek: The Search for a Rare Oklahoma Bird by Amy Dee Stephens

 Field Notes:  We hoped to sneak closer to the elusive bird, but had no trees to hide behind, only the prairie sage at our feet.  Was it possible that the bird’s lekking ground was merely a mile away?  We strained to hear past the sound of oil pumps, listening for the rarely-heard bird call…“Boom, boom, boom.” 

 Can’t afford that jungle excursion or African safari this year?  Oklahomans have the rare chance to join their own animal expedition in search of disappearing wildlife in the Great Plains.  The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) is desperately seeking manpower as they gather data about local species. 

Site of the 2012 Prairie Chicken research project, Cheyenne, Oklahoma. Photo by Stacey Sekscienski.

 In April, 18 zoo employees made the week-long trek to northwest Oklahoma to help ODWC discover if Lesser Prairie Chicken populations are declining or holding steady.  Poor results might land the bird on the federal Endangered Species List.

 “The goal is to find proof that prairie chickens are viable so that they don’t have to be listed,” said Christine Zbytowski, bird keeper.  “It’s best for the birds and the land owners if their populations stay stable.” 

 Little Land on the Prairie

Unfortunately, the Great Plains is disappearing at an alarming rate as land is developed for crops and the oil and gas industry.  Surveys indicate that only 10% of the birds’ original home range remains intact.  Concerned citizens are faced with the on-going challenge of balancing human advancement and wildlife conservation. 

 “I hadn’t been in northern Oklahoma in awhile, and it’s becoming much more commercial,” said Michael Howarth, maintenance employee.  “I saw more pump jacks, windmill turbines and lots of new stores.  Those people have to make a living, and I have family that works in the oil industry, so I can’t complain, but it’s definitely impacting the landscape.”

 With A Boom and a Bubble

How is the prairie chicken faring at this point?  It’s too early to tell.  Four or five years of survey data is required to make a determination—and the prairie chicken is not an easy bird to spot!  In fact, it is so difficult to find, that the preferred survey method is to listen for its call. 

 Each spring, male prairie chickens gather on a high spot with sparse grass, called a lek.  They “perform” for the females by lowering their wings and tail feathers, puffing up purple neck sacks, and strutting around.  They also jump up and down, making loud booming and bubbling sounds.  The booming can be heard a mile away on a calm day.   

 Field Work in a Field 

In order to avoid interrupting the bizarre courtship ceremony, researchers keep their distance.  Zoo employees who participated in the project were trained to identify the booming sound by listening to a recording.  To actually see the birds on the prairie was considered a big bonus.    

 “Each team started at sunrise along a different route,” said Cliff Casey, graphic artist.  “We drove a mile down the road, walked into the field, listened for three minutes, and then went another mile.  We heard some, but didn’t see any.”

 As with any field work, problems arose. 

 “This year was a bummer,” said Zbytowski.  “It rained all but one day.  The back roads were slick and muddy, and the wind speeds were so high that we couldn’t hear anything.  But last year, my team actually got close enough to a lek to get video of the prairie chickens jumping around and displaying.”


Site of 2012 Prairie Chicken Survey. Photo by Stacey Sekscienski.

Score 53 for Chickens!

Despite low returns this year, the staff felt good about their efforts.  Most plan to help again next year.    

 “Yes, I take care of birds at the zoo, but going out and helping local wildlife is really practicing our message of conservation.  I’m not originally from Oklahoma, but I can help be the eyes and ears for Oklahoma species,” said Zbytowski.

 The first year for the Lesser Prairie Chicken Survey was 2011.  The zoo’s conservation committee dedicated $20,000 both last year and this year to the project, in addition to donating zoo employee assistance.  Although this year’s results are unannounced, last year’s nearly-500 survey spots netted 53 “hearings” and 33 sightings of prairie chickens.  Only time will reveal the significance of these numbers.           

 Your Turn for Adventure

Would you like to hear or see this rare Oklahoma bird on its lekking grounds?  Consider joining the efforts of the ODWC.  The prairie chicken survey isn’t the only opportunity for local citizens to help with research.  Currently, the zoo is also assisting with the Bat Survey, Winter Bird Survey, Horned Lizard Survey, and many others.    

 “You don’t have to be a zoo employee to do this,” said Jennifer D’Agostino, Director of Veterinary Services.  “ODWC only has two wildlife biologists who have to manage conservation projects for the whole state.  They need all the volunteers they can get.”

 So, pick your own animal expedition this year, right here in Oklahoma. Maybe you will help keep an animal off the Endangered Species List.     

 Visit for further information about wildlife conservation.  (This article reprinted by permission from ZooSounds, Fall 2012.)

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