Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

November 1893. Oologist 10(11): 303-304.

The Game Bird of the Prairie.

The birds of this section, Nebraska, are to a certain extent a connecting link between those of the east and those of the extreme west. In many instances we find both the eastern and the western variety of the same bird. Yet this central section has a few birds peculiar to itself. Prominent among these is the Prairie Hen.

In this article I shall not use scientific terms but shall confine myself to homely expressions and comparisons, I think I can give a better general idea of my subject in this way than any other. No doubt a large number of the readers of the "Oologist" are scientists and perfectly familiar with Latin terms and technical phrases. Yet it is reasonable to suppose that many of the readers are more familiar with our birds themselves than with ornithology as a science.

Have you ever heard that peculiar sound called the "booming" of Prairie Chickens; probably not. In order to hear it you must be in the country and get up before sunrise some morning about the first of May, this is the mating season. The birds congregate in flocks of forty or fifty birds each and seek some grassy ridge somewhat apart from man, to do their love making. The long drawn booming sound is made by the males. They have quite a bellows of loose skin on the neck which they puff up, and tufts of feathers on the back of the head or neck. They erect these "horns," lower the wings slightly spread the tail and strut about somewhat in the manner of a Turkey Gobbler,—giving words to their love song, while the females keep time with their ka-kar-ka-ka-kar-r-r. A friend of mine, an old Englishman, once told me that the males were each trying to say "I'm-bigger-'n-n-n-you" and that their wives were laughing at the attempt. To sound like their booming, this bigger-'n-n-n-you must be read slowly and in a nasal tone, then it is a very good counterfeit. If you approach them openly, they take wing two or three at a time, before you get in shot gun range of them. What a whir of wings! For the sake of argument we will assume that you bag a bird or two. Let us take a look at them. They are about as large as small chickens. Heads are small, the beaks and feet nearly black, the plumage is dark and colored somewhat like that of the common quail. That is the feathers are barred with dark brown and light brown; with here and there a Yellowish tint. The wings are small for such a heavy bird, but they make up for that by rapidity of motion. If you strip off the feathers the skin is found to be decidedly dark. In this case, color is more than skin deep for the flesh is extremely dark, even after being cooked. Despite the color, Prairie Chicken is of an excellent flavor, especially if the bird is young and "cooked just right."

During the winter, they congregate in great flocks. A single flock often contains several hundred birds. When spring comes, they separate, each pair seeking a home in some unfrequented place. There the nest is built on the ground, hidden by grass so that it is extremely hard to find. In "early times," prairie fires were very destructive to the nests and young. After a fire it was no uncommon thing to see whole sets of scorched eggs on the bare ground.

The number of eggs in a set varies from a dozen to over twenty. They have the general appearance of common bare-yard guineas eggs. The color being nearly the same as that which coffee gives egg shell, although they are sometimes dotted with dark brown. The shell is much heavier and harder than that of hens eggs.

If you should succeed in finding a brood of young about a week old, you would be surprised at the activity they display. It is very difficult to catch one of these lively youngsters. The mother gives a warning cry—away they scurry in all directions, giving a peculiar weeping cry. In less time than it takes to tell it, they have vanished, and search as you may, the chances are that you cannot find a single one.

Judging from my experience with a shot gun, the "bow armed Indian" did not bag many chickens. The modern "sport" with his well trained dog and his repeating shot gun is hurrying this noble bird to the happy hunting ground. It is not the hunting clubs nor is it the farmer with his muzzle loader, who is waging this war of destruction, but it is the worthless town loafer—that miserable wretch who is too lazy to work for his living but supports (?) his family by fishing and pot-hunting. It is this same fellow or others of his caliber who in many places hunt birds for their feathers.

To make this business more despicable it is generally carried on in defiance of the law. If this slaughter continues, the Prairie Hen will soon be numbered with the rare birds.

This "sport" continues until nearly all the chickens are killed. The few "lucky birds" are very shy and lead lonely lives until Christmas time, when they again collect in flocks.

They are seldom hunted in winter because they fly long before the hunter comes in range. Yet they may often be seen feeding in cornfields or on the buds of trees. They seem to have a special liking for cottonwood buds and it is no uncommon thing to see twenty-five or thirty birds in one tree, in the spring time. Do not mistake my meaning and get the impression that Prairie Hens "live in trees," for they spend nearly all their time on the ground or flying.

With a short description of the flight of the game bird of the prairie I will close. It may he called a "buzz and a soar." It is accompanied by a loud whirring noise, unlike that produced by another bird that I have ever seen. Like Bill Nyes Ostrich they have a lively way of swapping time for distance.

  • X. T. C.