Prairie Chicken Capital

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on March 24, 2002

“Whoop, whoop, whoop,” screech the displaying male greater prairie chickens each time hens enter a mating or “booming” ground in northwest Minnesota. The males strut, cackle, stomp, and fan their tail feathers while hens stroll through, sizing up potential mates. Typically, the three or four oldest, heaviest males claim the center of a booming ground and do most of the mating.

Thousands of acres of grasslands around Rothsay, Minn., (pop. 497) are home to several hundred breeding pairs of greater prairie chickens, which perform a mating ritual called “booming” each spring. To woo the females, male prairie chickens elevate their neck feathers and inflate bright orange neck sacks, emitting an eerie booming sound that can carry for up to two miles.

Some 1,400 male prairie chickens perform this courtship ritual in an 11-county region of northwest Minnesota, including the 3,000-acre Rothsay Wildlife Management Area four miles west of Rothsay and in several other smaller state and private preserves in Wilkin County.

The ideal habitat—grasslands intermingled with agricultural fields—attracts the brown, cinnamon, and buff birds.

Prairie chickens fed the Norwegian immigrant settlers who arrived in the area on the heels of the Homestead Act in 1862. In the mid-1970s, a state Department of Natural Resources official reported that Rothsay and surrounding areas had the state’s largest concentration of prairie chickens.

“After that, we started working on becoming designated the Prairie Chicken Capital,” says Roberta Ouse, who lives on a farm west of town, where prairie chickens boom. The efforts paid off when the town was named Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota in 1975.

Surely, a prairie chicken capital should have a monument, decided trucking business and repair shop owner Art Fosse. He offered to build it in his workshop, if townspeople would help. Citizens pitched in, and Fosse’s nearly 14-foot-tall monument of a displaying male prairie chicken was officially dedicated in 1976.

“I thought it would be good for the community and give everyone a chance to work together,” recalls Fosse.

Working together taught Rothsay townspeople the power of collaboration. They banded together on other issues, such as keeping their school open. Through an innovative program, the school district owns the local hardware and lumber store, where high school students work. The student-run store helps keep the downtown alive while offering students business experience and class credits. The community also runs a program offering services to seniors so they can remain in their homes.

In a similarly effective spirit of cooperation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy, and state Department of Natural Resources work together to protect prairie chicken habitat, the key to the area’s healthy prairie chicken population.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society promotes awareness of greater prairie chickens and their habitat and reintroduces them in regions where they originally were plentiful, says Brian Winter, society president and a Nature Conservancy employee.

Guests can get a good view of prairie chickens on their booming grounds by hiding in natural-looking portable blinds on the Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie Scientific and Natural Area near Glyndon, 30 miles northwest of Rothsay. Blinds are available at no charge, by reservation, from 5 a.m. to about 8:30 a.m., mid-March through late May. Once in the blinds, guests must remain there until the prairie chickens disperse.

Of course, no visitor leaves Rothsay without at least one prairie chicken sighting. Just off Interstate 94 stands the community’s prairie chicken monument—a 9,200-pound concrete replica of a male greater prairie chicken in full courtship. All that’s missing is the sound and action—and a 9,000-pound female.