Sunday, October 19, 2014

Prairie Chicken

Nebraska is a big wide-open state with endless vistas of corn and wheat interspersed with houses, barns, and windmills.  Actually there is much more to it than that, but farming is the dominant perception one has while driving through the state.

I had to visit a company store in Kearney where one of the department managers was an old high school friend.  Actually he went to a different high school from me, but we lived near each other, and soon became friends.  It seems his family was from near Kearney and had a rather large farm they tended, but for about four years mom and the kids moved to Fort Worth to take care of a sick relative.  I lost track of Barney just after graduation when his family moved away.  When I met him again, it was at the store in Kearney, to which his family had returned.

We spent the evening discussing old times, and it wasn’t long before he invited me to his family farm for a visit.  He mentioned hunting prairie chicken if I could make it there in the next few weeks.  Hunt??  Is a four-pound canary fat??  Yes!  I will be there!

I went on to a number of other company stores in the central plains before I could arrange to return to Kearney, but in a couple of weeks I was back and ready for prairie chicken.  I drove to Barn’s family farm where he and I went over our plans.  Well, actually he went over the plans.  I just listened.  I was quite surprised that this hunt was not with shotguns, but with cameras.

I didn’t quite know what to think.  I had never thought of hunting without some kind of a weapon, and I couldn’t understand the purpose, but I had my camera with me, and I was willing to give it a try.

That evening, just as the sun was disappearing, we were sitting outside on his front porch, and I could hear the strangest noise in the distance.  It sounded something like a “boom” or a prolonged “thump.”  “That’s the chicken we’re looking for.”  Barn told me the place we were going before sunrise would be filled with that noise.

Well, okay.  I can’t say I was enthused.  I really wanted to taste some prairie chicken, but my friend was certain I would enjoy using a camera on these birds. 

By 4am the next morning we were in his Jeep driving to the far end of the farm where a large area was still untouched prairie grasslands.  We stopped and hiked about a quarter of a mile to a place where that booming sound could be heard very close by.  Here we sat down and waited, but we didn’t wait long.  As the sky quickly grew light, the prairie chickens begin to gather. 

For about 3 hours I was treated to a ritual the likes of which I had never before witnessed.  It was a mating ritual where the male prairie chickens would dance, jump, vault, spread their plumage, and in general put on a display designed to attract a female prairie chicken.  The booming was almost non-stop among the male birds, and the females were gathered around watching.  Sometimes a female bird would join in with a male and soon the new couple would disappear into the prairie grass to do their prairie chicken stuff in private.

I watched with my mouth hanging open until a fly flew in.  After that I remembered what I was there for.  I picked up my camera and started taking pictures.  I believe I burned through every roll of film I had with me that day.  Most of the photos were bad, but a handful were very good by my amateur standards, and I enjoyed looking at them and bringing back the memories for several years.

I never had another opportunity to hunt prairie chicken either with a camera or a shotgun, and it’s just as well.  Like so many of our wild game in North America, the numbers are dwindling and careful management is necessary for the species’ survival. 

I won’t say whether hunting or fishing is right or wrong, but a camera can provide great satisfaction to a hunter or fisherman.  I haven’t hunted for many years now, but that is mostly due to physical abilities.  And even if I could hunt today, it would most likely be with a camera.  As for fishing, I catch and release, and when I can remember to bring a camera along, I photograph my catch.

My prairie chicken hunt was in 1972.  I like to think there are many more birds today just because I used a camera rather than my shotgun back then.

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