I have to say, that I enjoy attending bird festivals and events in general (I must, I go to more in a year, than most birders will in a lifetime). But, I was really struck by the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival in Woodward, OK. Because the festival wasn't just about seeing the festival bird, but we actively helped the bird:
Oklahoma is a beautiful state with vast, sweeping landscapes, but it's also divided by several cattle fences. They are everywhere, dividing property lines. The fences have become a part of the many problems facing the lesser prairie-chicken's precarious future. The bird's natural defensive behavior when fleeing a predator, is to fly low, right above the grasses. If they are fleeing a fast predator like a peregrine falcon, the prairie-chickens may not pay attention in their panic and cannot dart the fences that are taller than the grasses. The chickens fly into the fences and die. Look at the above photo, you can see how the fence blends in to the grassy landscape.
Research about lesser prairie-chicken mortality conducted by The Sutton Center has found that 40% of the mortality in Oklahoma is due to collisions with these fences! If you follow the link to the lesser-prairie chicken ecology, you can read more about the results. It was interesting to note that female prairie-chickens are especially susceptible to fence collisions and that is a huge concern--they lay the eggs. Sure, they need the males for fertilization of the eggs, but beyond that, the , build the nest and raise the young--you need all the females you can get out there to replenish the population. The Sutton Center, however, has come up with a unique plan!
They have come up with a unique fence marking plan to save the lesser prairie-chicken. By using "undersill" strips (trim strips) of vinyl siding available at many big box home stores, fences can be made more visible to the chickens. Eric Beck, the Oklahoma Audubon Council's Important Bird Area Coordinator was a field trip leader for the festival. However, when not leading trips, he was cutting up strips of trim to be placed on fences.
After we watched the lesser prairie-chickens on the lek, we were given a filling ranch breakfast at Selman Ranch, shown how do the fence marking, and set loose with bags of tag to mark fences at a WMA that has prairie-chickens. This was the most proactive bird field trip I have ever been on at a bird festival. What a GREAT idea--show us this cool bird and let's not just lament that it's fate in the wild is uncertain, let's actually have festival participants do something that could actually help the birds. Best idea I've seen at a bird festival in years. I love this as much as I love the Delaware Bird-a-thon that raises money to buy up migratory habitat for the red knot. We need more of this kind of active conservation and birding.
And that's not to say that fences are the only challenge facing the lesser prairie-chicken. Wind farms are popping up all over Oklahoma. Lesser prairie-chickens nest out in the open on the ground, they don't nest next to all trees--red-tailed hawks and Swainson's hawks perch there, watching for some fat tasty prey. Tall windmills look a little too much like tall trees and lesser prairie-chickens will not nest next to the farms, so that fragments their nesting habitat even more.
Still challenges ahead, but still hope too.