Once upon the prairie ...
Updated: Apr 1
Chickens are not noted for their brains, and as a child I tended to assume that prairie chickens were as flighty and unpredictable as those in our chicken coop. They would suddenly fly up with a great whir of wings from some hiding place along the road, startling horse and rider. Our sedate old school mare lost her rider more than once because of a close encounter with a prairie chicken.
And when my Dad came in from doing chores on a cold winter morning and told us about digging a dozen prairie chickens out of a snowbank, we were glad he had saved them but giggled about their silliness. The snow falling overnight had settled over them as they slept, forming an icy crust they couldn’t break through without the help of his shovel. Isn’t that just like a chicken?
That opinion changed one grey day in early spring. The snow was almost gone except in the coulees, and the hills had not yet greened. It was one of those overcast days that sucks all colour from land and sky. But what did we care? Dad had promised us a surprise. He said that, right after supper and evening chores were done, he had something wonderful to show us.
Mom and Dad and the kids, all five of us, piled into the car and Dad drove out the lane and turned onto the trail winding through an old farmyard and on for a mile up to the pasture in the big hills. This was unusual, as we generally visited this pasture only on horseback or on foot. We drove past the hills where we kids sometimes hiked and continued on, up to a high and lonely butte. Here Dad stopped the car and said, “Now, I don’t want to hear a peep out of anyone.” He told us to roll down the windows, sit still and just watch. So that’s what we did.
Time passed. We watched. We listened. Nothing happened. We got fidgety. The dull day grew duller.
Then, in the gathering dusk, we heard it. A nearly inaudible thrumming sound.
We saw them. So perfectly matched to the colours of last year’s prairie grass, at first we had to squint and strain our eyes to make out their small shapes. They would have been invisible but for their movement. Wings spread, tiny feet shuffling, the prairie chicken were dancing.
Oblivious of our car almost at the edge of their lek, ignoring the wide-eyed children peering down at them, they obeyed sone ancient and urgent call. They danced.
Only that once did Dad take us there. I have no idea how he, in his busy chore-driven days, had managed to discover their secret place. Maybe he’d found it long ago when he was a boy, and for just one evening dared share the magic with his family.
Seventy years have passed since then. A friend told me recently that the last documented sighting in Saskatchewan of a prairie chicken was 2010. Ten years ago. It’s longer than that since any one has observed them dancing.
Yet even now that pasture remains intact. The hill is still there. Native prairie surrounds it on all sides.
And someday, I hope, the prairie chicken will dance there again.
Author of Prairie Grass and Looking for Aiktow