Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Prairie Chicken
Nature Bulletin No. 99   January 18, 1947
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
William N. Erickson, President
Roberts Mann, Superintendent of Conservation

In late January the prairie chicken cocks begin to "boom". Feeble and infrequent at first, booming increases as winter merges into spring and continues until June. The cocks gather in groups, regularly, before sunrise and again at sunset, on open ridges or slight rises in the prairie. Year after year they come to the same locations where each male establishes a "territory" which he defends fiercely. Fights are frequent.

As a prelude to booming, the cock runs forward a short distance, stops, stamps his feet rapidly and pivots in a half or full circle. As he dances, the two brilliant orange air sacs -- one on each side of his neck -- are inflated, his long horn-like neck feathers are erected, the fleshy orange eyebrows are also inflated and his tail spread fanwise, snaps with a loud click. Then comes the boom.

The sound is like that made by blowing across the mouth of a large bottle and consists of three notes, evenly spaced, rising at intervals of a quarter or a half tone and lasting about 3 seconds. They seem to say "oo-loo-woo" or " Old-Mul-doon". Amplified by the resonant inflated air sacs, they can be heard a mile away. When several cocks are booming at once the calls blend into a continuous humming sound.

In pioneer times there were vast numbers of prairie chickens in Illinois and the other prairie states. They were slaughtered by the thousands for city markets. The invention of the steel plow destroyed most of their favorite food and cover. In 1933 it became unlawful to kill them but today there are probably less than 30,000 left in Illinois, confined largely to 50 square miles of sand prairie along Green River in the northwestern part of the state and to 2600 square miles of gray-soil prairie in the southeastern portion where 85% of the world's crop of red top grass seed is produced. We saw only three in the Chicago region last summer.

The cardinal is the state bird of Illinois, as it is in three other states. The prairie chicken should be the official bird of this, the Prairie State. Maybe, then, we would save it from the fate of the passenger pigeon.

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