CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Booming mating calls rocked the Illinois prairie in the mid-1800s, announcing that colorful greater prairie chickens were near and abundant. As pioneers moved west, the birds were hunted for food. They fell to predators, their habitats shrank, and, scientists say, even the birds' declining genetic diversity brought their near extinction.
In the Friday (Nov. 27) issue of the journal Science, nine researchers report that an isolated group of the birds is making a comeback. The potential recovery is the result of an experimental conservation-management program, in which birds from other states were added. The program was based on genetic findings and 35 years of population monitoring.
The greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus) is estimated to have numbered in the millions in Illinois when pioneers moved west. They were "shot by the wagonload for food," said Ronald Westemeier, a recently retired scientist with the Illinois Natural History Survey and lead author of the Science article. As the prairie diminished, so did the birds' habitat - from more than 60 percent of the state to less than 0.01 percent and in just two isolated populations in Jasper and Marion counties. From 1962 to 1994, in Jasper County alone, their numbers fell from 2,000 to less than 50.
Among those 50, Westemeier said, only six were resident males, which are known for the colorful orange sacks that inflate on each side of their necks during their mating call. According to this year's count, not covered in the study, males number 84 in the Prairie Ridge State Natural Area in Jasper County in southeastern Illinois, where Westemeier had directed the comprehensive greater prairie-chicken monitoring program since 1966.
"Right now, it looks very good," Westemeier said. "I feel like I am going out on a high note. Rather than seeing this population of Illinois birds lost altogether, we are seeing a recovery. I am very glad to see this."