Lessons From The Dancing Chickens

Travel Blog  •  Sophia Dembling  •  05.14.09 | 1:44 PM ET

Photo by Sophia Dembling

When I heard about the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival in Woodward, Okla., my mind went directly to funnel cakes, face painting, and maybe a parade with a Lesser Prairie Chicken Queen. Sign me up, I said! I love small-town fests.

I’m kind of a moron sometimes. It wasn’t until I had my trip planned that I fully understood that a bird festival is where bird watchers gather to watch birds—in this case, lesser prairie chickens. Not only was funnel cake not part of the event, but the centerpiece of the weekend involved waking before dawn to spend three hours in a field watching chickens dance.

Well, what the heck. I’d never heard of dancing chickens before and I love Oklahoma. I was game. So I drove six hours from Dallas to Woodward, arriving on a Friday evening. On Saturday morning, I woke at 4:30 a.m., drank one cup of bad in-room coffee (no bathrooms at the blinds, and if I scared the birds away by peeing on the prairie I would have been garroted by birders) and boarded a van with people carrying expensive binoculars and cameras with lenses the length of my arm. Then I climbed over a barbed wire fence, stumbled through cow patties in the dark, crammed into a small blind in the middle of a field with a couple of real birders, and wondered what the hell I was doing there.

And then the chickens arrived and started dancing.

The males come to the lek (an area that’s sort of a prairie chicken singles bar) to show off their moves for potential mates. They flip up two feathers on the side of their heads, swell red sacs on either side of their necks, bob their heads like they’re sneezing, warble, and stomp their feet, which makes a surprisingly loud thrumming noise for such little guys.

It was absolutely adorable and deeply moving.

As the sun came up, revealing the glorious prairie all around us, I was struck by the image of those little birds, far from everything, dancing for their lives in a world where few people know they even exist.

Over the course of the rest of the weekend, I went on other bird-watching excursions, and attended a pair of programs by nature artist Debbie Kaspari and another about prairie ecology by wildlife biologist Dwayne Elmore, Ph.D. I learned that the prairie is under pressure from many things, including the encroachment of cedar, and the lovely little prairie chicken is a species at risk from wind turbines (they won’t nest under tall structures) and barbed wire. A highlight of the weekend for me was an hour spent tromping through the golden grass, marking barbed wire fencing so chickens don’t get snagged on it and die. Not only did I love walking in the prairie, but I got to do something for the chickens who had danced so nicely for me. Well, not for me, exactly—I wasn’t the target audience, but you get my point.

Sometimes, mistakes lead you to places you never imagined you’d be, and every time I travel, I learn to care about something new, even if it’s not what I expected. On this weekend in Oklahoma, I learned about the prairie, I learned to love the dancing chickens, and I forgot all about funnel cake.

Maybe I was a moron at the beginning of the trip, but I was smarter by the end.

This video of dancing chickens is by Sharon Stiteler, aka the Bird Chick, who was the event’s keynote speaker and is a very fun human being.