Thursday, April 18, 2013

Lonesome Chuck

Lonesome Chuck- Photo from Marvin De Jong
Marvin De Jong sent out this picture of "Lonesome Chuck," a male prairie chicken in a small and isolated Missouri prairie, looking for love without success.  As the patches of prairie become more isolated, the prairie chicken populations of Missouri face extirpation.

Chuck now lives on a prairie which has no hens.  Since existing prairies are separated by miles of farmland, he is unlikely to find a female, but that doesn't stop him from trying.  Greg Swick's video here of Chuck clearly emphasizes his loneliness as he calls in vain, with a response only from a distant dog and the wind.

There are other prairie chickens on a few other prairies in Missouri and some populations are holding their own for a little while but efforts to restore the former populations are challenged by the lack of contiguous prairies that are common in Kansas.

Heath Hen male- 1909
"Booming Ben" was truly the last of a breed, the heath hen, a related grouse which was quite common on the East coast during colonial times.  They were hunted down to small numbers and became extinct in 1932.  Ben was the last one alive.
"By 1927 there were only a dozen or so heath hens left.  After December 28th, 1928 there was only one heath hen, a male.  The islanders had named him “Booming Ben”.  For the next three years Ben showed up every spring to call out to any female hen that would listen.  He would eat corn in Farmer Green’s field hoping to find a mate.  He waited and waited to no avail.  On March 11, 1932, Farmer Green saw Ben scurrying under a bush.  That was the last time anyone ever saw Ben again.  He had lived a lonely solitary life booming his soothing call across the fields waiting for his true love to answer.  He died that year, alone, the last heath hen."
Booming Ben was probably the only bird extinction where we could identify the last living victim.  Our Lonesome Chuck's problem is really more of a personal problem...for now.  His plaintive cry captures the price of fragmentation of our prairies and the subsequent loss of diversity, giving you a bird's-eye view of the possible future of the Missouri prairie chicken.  It will break your heart as well as it does his.

As with many threatened charismatic species, there is a conflict between viewing them to preserve the memory and celebrate the species versus the threat of our close presence to their safety and reproductive behavior, i.e. loving them to death.

Lonesome Chuck- Photo from Greg Swick
There is also a question whether Lonesome Chuck is calling hens in vain or simply defending the territory for reasons built into his bird brain.  It is natural to want to help even an individual bird.  When asked about the feasibility of moving Chuck to another prairie, Max Alleger, a grassland bird biologist with MDC gave this thoughtful reply.   

"Some recent history:  During the winter of 2011-2012, two wayward, radio-marked KS hens made their way from Wah-Kon'Tah Prairie to the prairie complex NW of Lockwood.  One survived the winter, mated with one of two local males and successfully hatched a brood of 14 chicks.  Several weeks later she was killed in a fence collision; we don’t know the fate of the brood members.  It is possible that the two males booming at (and near) Shelton are male siblings from that brood.  If true, they lacked access to a traditional lek occupied by mature males last fall.  They had no opportunity to, ‘learn the ropes.’  The lek is the social center of prairie-chicken life and the lessons learned thereon by juvenile birds are likely much more important to future behavior than we understand.  This poor fellow may not even realize he’s a prairie-chicken; he is driven to defend a bit of turf this time of year and, knowing no better, he takes-on all comers regardless of form.  I’ve watched chickens in several states and can confidently state that this is not the behavior of individuals on occupied leks in landscapes with healthy prairie-chicken populations.  I suspect the birds did not behave in this manner when the prairies were first settled by Europeans, by which time they had a thousand generations of collective experience with native people.

I liken the behavior being witnessed at Shelton Prairie to the death rattle of a local, profoundly isolated sub-population.  In my opinion, it should not be seen as a cool experience.  Rather, it represents a sobering reality that has likely played out many times across Missouri’s prairie landscapes over the past hundred years.  It almost always ends in the same manner – the confused male finally gets killed and prairie-chickens in that place become just a memory, a historical account.  According to Steve Clubine, “Fred” - the last male in Audrain County- was killed by a vehicle while booming in the intersection of C and D Highways.   The last male at Whiteman Air Force Base was taking on jet planes.  Residents in southern Henry County brought in photos of the last local male roosting on a school bus, challenging a tractor and flogging the landowner’s hand while booming in his driveway.  A few years ago, I heard reports from a construction crew working in rural Bates County of being approached and followed by a lone male.  Just a couple years ago I received close-up pictures of a lone male on private land in Barton County.  I’ve heard similar stories from other states as well.

We won’t attempt to move this bird from Shelton Prairie.  There is an outside chance that females remain in the landscape, or that another hen may disperse from the Wah-Kon’Tah / Taberville landscape to northwestern Dade County.  This is obviously a very slim chance.  Regardless, his proven lack of, ‘prairie-chickenness’ does not make him a great candidate for release on a functional lek elsewhere; his behavior is unlikely to change in a different landscape."

Maintaining the remaining prairies and restoring them when possible makes good sense as an investment in our future.  Trying to adopt a single bird probably doesn't, except in the case of genetic and breeding programsWe have what we call Grandma's Rule -- "Some things just need a good leaving alone."

(Thanks to Marvin, Greg, and Jeff Cantrell for their photographs and insights.)

Addendum April 29th, 2013 
Kyle Hedges of MDC reports:
"Ironically, yesterday while waiting  for the news team, I spotted a hen out in the field with him. We absolutely, positively have not had a hen around. Then, I finally got a good enough look and sure enough, she had a radio collar on. Same thing happened last year, an Eldo radio bird flew all the way down here and found him. So, we will start tracking her and see what happens."  TV news video