RINGGOLD COUNTY, Iowa — It’s a spring morning in southern Iowa — so early, it’s still late. We are out here in the cold, in hopes of telling a bird story. It’s one that can be told only here, and only now and perhaps, never again.
The photographers at WHO 13 and I have told so many.
Of the eagles on the Des Moines Riverbank, the falcons in the building tops, the ospreys in West Des Moines, of the Canada geese…well, in too many places.
We’ve got a duck blind, we’ve got Iowa DNR biologist Chad Paup, and as the dawn begins to break — we’ve got company.
As the ghostly sounds grow and the darkness yields, they appear. Iowa’s greater prairie chickens — as their stage begins to light.
They are a birder’s holy grail; hard to find, yet impossible to miss. An audio-visual treat.
“People come from all over the country to places like Kellerton just to get a bird that they’ve never seen before,” Paup whispers. “Maybe what they might call a ‘lifer.'”
The Kellerton Conservation Area is a spot on the map, a blip in Ringgold County–but it’s the only place they’re found in Iowa, and this is THE time to see them.
“Prairie chickens are considered a lek species,” says biologist, Anna Buckardt Thomas, “and a lek is where all of the males congregate in the spring and they come all to one area which is called the lek and they display for the females.”
So this is the lek, these are some of the males, this is one of the females, and they —21 birds—are all that’s left of their kind in Iowa.
“We don’t actually know why the prairie chicken isn’t thriving and doing well,” Paup says.
“We’re at a point where we are doing lots and lots of work to create that good grassland habitat landscape,” adds Thomas, “and the birds just…we haven’t had a successful response at this point.”
Extirpated in the 1950s, hundreds were reintroduced to Iowa from Kansas in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. Time and again, their numbers here have dwindled.
“When we did it last time we had quite a few partners,” Paup says, “and it went well, but it was expensive — and it’s something that you’d probably have to do every 15-20 years.”
The 2,000 acres here in Kellerton likely isn’t enough. The constant issue for outdoorsmen in Iowa applies to wildlife, too: there is a minuscule amount of public land in this state, and of that which is private, most is cropland, not grassy pasture.
It’s a fact that has bothered Iowans who love the outdoors and wildlife for decades.
“It’s just insane,” says Rodger Routh, with the Iowa Ornithologists Union. “There’s all kinds of land that could be preserved in a natural state. They (Republican legislators) are even drafting legislation to make it harder to preserve land, which is beyond comprehension to me.”
Birders like Routh come from hundreds of miles away to see the prairie chickens, and wonder if giving up on them might have a ripple effect.
“If you remove one thing, you’re affecting innumerable other things along the way,” Routh says.
Others look to the cattle who graze the Kellerton fields and wonder if more private-public cooperation might help by expanding the birds’ range.
“The prairie chickens in Kansas,” Buckardt Thomas points out, “a lot of them are on private property out in pasture land and so areas that are good for cattle grazing can also be good for prairie chickens.”
The DNR’s prairie chicken master plan extends until 2042 but it’s unlikely it will include bringing in more birds. Their numbers aren’t growing much outside of Iowa, either, and it’s time for tough questions.
“What does that mean for conservation of the species as a whole,” says Buckardt Thomas, “if we’re taking from other populations to add to a population that we haven’t had great success with so far?”
“We essentially have a genetic sink, here,” says Paup. “These birds are gonna have to hold on as long as they can, but we can’t expand this.”
So among those we’ve brought back — eagles, falcons, swans, and osprey — there’s one who’s confounded us. And those who’d like to see them should not delay. As I think of my chance I’ll remember the sounds and colors and some of the words.
“Everybody’s got a bird story. And it’s meaningful.”
This mine. The time I welcomed the dawn, in the last hours of Iowa’s prairie chickens.