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.

Sophia Dembling

Dallas-based writer Sophia Dembling is co-author of the Flyover America blog and author of "The Yankee Chick's Survival Guide to Texas." She would love to hear your tales of America, so drop her an email.

12 Comments for Lessons From The Dancing Chickens

Jenna Schnuer 05.14.09 | 4:16 PM ET

“Prairie chicken singles bar.” Excellent.

And even if you started out a moron, you were willing to evolve. That alone proves that you’re not truly a moron—you’re just a lady who think funnel cakes make a day better. And, really, that kind of proves that you’re not a moron.

Thanks for the prairie chicken primer. Now I want to go watch them dance. See you around the lek next year?

Sophia Dembling 05.14.09 | 5:25 PM ET

I’d go hang out with the prairie chickens any day, I think I’m in love.

TR 05.14.09 | 7:59 PM ET

Sophia - it was great sharing that weekend with you and fantastic seeing this prairie world I love so much through your eyes.  This prairie and its lovely, dancing chickens are definitely worth fighting for.  And by the way, there’s a new generation of birders out there now - Debby, Sharon and I exemplify the new world order of birders and we welcome you to the club!

Lara 05.14.09 | 9:48 PM ET

Still, it seems like a few funnel cakes couldn’t hurt…..

Sophia Dembling 05.14.09 | 10:50 PM ET

Funnel cake and prairie chickens. Is this heaven or Oklahoma?

Jennifer 05.15.09 | 7:45 AM ET

I remember a weekend camping trip in college were we went to see sage grouse leks.  They were fun times, however, I do remember that I was running on empty as we spent most of the nights spot lighting for black-footed ferrets, early mornings at the leks and every other minute looking for other wildlife wonders and/or attending lectures.  One of the wildlife officials running the weekend commented that he had never seen anyone sleep standing up—he was talking about me of course! :-)

Sophia Dembling 05.15.09 | 7:47 AM ET

Ha! Yep, those wildlife people are maniacs. They’ll do anything to see dancing chickens. Gotta pace yourself with them.

Sophia Dembling 05.15.09 | 7:58 AM ET

Tim, I had so much fun with you new-order birders. I’m going to keep hanging out with you guys and let you do all the identifying while I just watch.

Lindsay 05.15.09 | 1:32 PM ET

What a great and funny experience. “Iím kind of a moron sometimes. ” had me laughing out loud.

birdingbev 05.20.09 | 8:15 PM ET

I so wanted to go to this festival, but, alas, work got in the way.  Sounds like it was a good time!  Have to keep it on the list for next year.

Diana LaStewart 05.26.09 | 8:59 PM ET

Moving article. Damn good writer, whoever you are.

Sophia Dembling 05.26.09 | 9:29 PM ET

Birdingbev, not only were the chickens wonderful, but the festival itself was really well organized, in my inexperienced opinion. But especially since it was this town’s first ... more experienced birder than I also thought it ran remarkably smoothly. I do recommend it.

Damn nice comment, whoever you are.

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