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The Prairie Chicken. Scientific Description of the Bird and its Habits. Hints on Rearing and Domestication

by Ernest Thompson Seton

MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 14
Read 22 May 1884

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For brevity it may be described as a grouse, resembling the other members of the family in its general anatomy and appearance, but differing in that its neck is without any specially developed feather-tufts, and its tail feathers are very short and stiff, except, however, the central pair, which are softer and so long that they project an inch beyond the others and end the tail in a point.

It is a matter of doubt whether these two long feathers are true tail feathers or merely developed coverts. The fact that their insertion is slightly above that of the true quills would seem to indicate that they are coverts, but in color and shape they grade perfectly into the adjoining quill feathers, which fact, I think, establishes their claim to be considered as true rectrices. It is from this peculiarity of the tail that the bird gets the name of “sharptailed” or “pintailed” grouse, though, throughout this country, it is best known as the prairie chicken.

In Manitoba at least this bird in its distribution is coextensive with the prairies. I have found it abundant in the Big Plain, Turtle Mountain, Souris and Shell river districts, but cannot say how far west it extends. In the east it has been found as far as the north shore of Lake Superior. It is supposed that at one time it ranged much further to the south than at present, but that it is retreating before the pinnated grouse (Tetrao cupida) which has already entered Manitoba by the Red River Valley. I have seen a number of specimens taken within twenty miles of Winnipeg. It is desirable that a record be kept of any new facts regarding this encroachment. ...

When the snow disappears and warmer weather sets in the chickens meet every morning in companies of from four, six to 20, on some selected hillock or knoll to indulge in what is called “the dance.” They commence at dawn. The birds may be seen standing in ordinary attitudes until suddenly one lowers his head, spreads out his wings horizontally, but slightly dipped, and his tail perpendicularly, distends his air sacs and erects his feathers, then taking the very shortest steps, but stamping his feet so fast and hard that the sound is like that of a kettle drum, he careers about, beating the air with his wings and vibrating the tail so that it rattles loudly, uttering a sort of cribbing crow, which seems to come from the air sacs. When one commences all join in rattling, stamping, drumming, dancing, louder and louder, faster and faster, till as they madly whirl about they are fairly leaping over each other in their excitement. This continues for a minute or two, then they gradually relax, but only for a short time, when they are again started by some one leading off. The whole performance reminds one so strongly of a “Cree dance” as to suggest that the dance of the birds was the prototype of the Indian exercise, the drumming noise, stamping hihi’s of the Indian corresponding to the wing drumming, tail ratding, stamping and crowing of the chickens. The space usually beaten by the dancing is from fifty to one hundred feet square, and is called in the Western States by the name of their “scratching ground.” The dance is indulged in at any time of the morning from dawn till noon, but generally till the sun is up, and is carried on throughout the month of May.

It will be seen that this corresponds somewhat to the manoeuvres of the Old World Ruff, a bird that is well known to be polygamous and for this and other reasons I expect that it may yet be proven that the grouse do not pair. ...

[Seton now describes his efforts to raise some prairie chickens.]

Having determined to raise some of the grouse in the barnyard, I set two common hens with prairie chicken eggs. The eggs were subjected to some very rough usage, all of them having made a long journey, either with a man on horseback or in a buggy over the prairie. The amount of shaking they bore would have endangered the vitality of any barn fowl egg. Besides this, through the negligence of the hen, they were several times left cold for some hours. Notwithstanding these disadvantages, after about twenty days the whole of the eggs came out. I put them with one large hen and enclosed for them a piece of prairie, in its natural state, so as to have their surroundings as natural as possible. They were bright little chicks, clad in golden down, with black spots above. When they squatted in the grass their color was a perfect concealment. Their only note was the triple whistle call, in a higher key, however, than that of the old ones. At first their wings all appeared with rows of large blood quills. As soon as they could run they showed a desire to drink, and on water being set before them they drank much and often. This was rather surprising, as in a state of nature they are hatched in the driest places and far from water.

2nd Day.—They are very active, catching flies, etc., they care little for any kind of food but that of living insects, but will now and then eat a little hard-boiled egg, or if oatmeal be wetted and splashed about the grass they will peck off a good deal of it.

3rd Day.—Three are dead; one was drowned and two were killed by the hen trampling on them. The hen was a Brahma and weighed about six pounds. I would recommend that a Game or Bantam hen be used in future, as the mother prairie chicken weighs barely two pounds at this time. This left me now twenty-two chicks.

4th day.—The chicks are now developing their scapulars.

7th day.—They can now fly a little, as the wing quills are very large and strong. I have reason to believe that when wild, that their development is even more rapid.

8th day.—They are now fledging on the neck, the wings are completely feathered; otherwise they are clad in down. At this time, when in a state of nature, should the old bird be surprised, she goes offwith a loud whirr, but immediately a dozen little “whirrs” are heard as she flies, and is followed by what appears to the unpractical eye, like a flock of sparrows, but in reality by her brood, which are already strong on the wing.

9th day.—All fly well, and their voices are changing from the high-pitched “peep” to the deeper “chuck” of the old ones.

13th day.—They now number but fifteen, the loss being caused by the clumsiness of the foster mother and the strict confinement. Yet if they be let out, they would be lost in the long grass, and could not be gathered together again by the hen, as they do not understand her “chuckle.” They are now well grown and feathered on the back. They still adhere to insect food, rarely eating anything of a vegetable nature except that they are fond of wild strawberries. An ant’s nest that would quite fill an ordinary bucket they pick clean in a day.

14th day.—A cold day, though this is the 13th of July. Fearing for the safety of the chickens I took them into the house. They sat under the stove on the tin. Here they chanced also to receive the direct rays of the sun as it shone through the window. Suddenly one of them jumped up and commenced to dance in the same manner as the old ones did on the hill, immediately the whole brood joined, their little feet stamping together on the tin under the stove, sounded like so many kettle drums, while their miniature crowing and strutting combined to form a most ludicrous spectacle.

17th day.—They number 13. They are now more than ever fond of the dance. They show the bare skin patches over the eye and on the neck, but these are neither colored nor inflated. Their heads are beginning to fledge and their tails to grow. Their wings are now much longer in proportion to those of adult birds.

About this time I was traversing some scrub land by night when suddenly I heard at my feet a well-known whirr. I clutched in the darkness and caught a young prairie chicken in each hand. ...

18th day.—The wild chickens apparently of the same age as my penned in birds, can fly a mile or more, indeed they seem as strong on the wing as the adults.

20th day.—The chicks number 12. A small one which died weighed only one ounce. I would here contrast its wing development with that of an adult. An adult prairie chicken weighs two pounds, each of its wings is eleven inches long and five inches across, which gives a total wing surface of 110 square inches or 3 1/2 square inches to each ounce of weight. The young one weighs an ounce, each of its wings is four inches long by two inches across, which gives a total wing surface of 16 square inches to its one ounce of weight. Therefore the young chick has in proportion nearly five times as much wing support as the mature bird, although, of course, the latter is more than compensated by the vastly greater proportion of muscular power.

22nd day.—They now have the adult voice and are all feathered except on the throat, neck and breasts, where they still retain the yellow down. They will now eat a little grain and are fond of curds, eggs and soaked bread, but insects continue to be their favorite food. Burrowing beetles, however, they will not eat.

28th day.—Today I emptied a lot of ashes into the pen, whereupon they indulged in the most extravagant expressions of delight, and for a long time continued to dust themselves most vigorously.

31st day.—Tried them with a dead hawk. All chuckled and squatted except two, the latter spreading their wings and tail and raising their feathers, crowing loudly and defiantly. I imagine the wild mother will often battle for her young successfully against harriers and other inferior birds of prey.

It is not necessary to follow further in detail the growth and development of the young grouse, as sufficient has been stated to illustrate the rapidity of their growth and to guide all who desire to raise them. ...

... Like most wild birds they have a foreknowledge of storms and when some firewood searcher returning from the woods reports that the chickens are going into the bush, that is leaving the open timber for the denser fir coverts, the settler makes ready for a severe storm.

The prairie chicken like most of the grouse family spend the night in winter in a snow drift. Out on the plains the wind pounds the snow into drifts of ice like hardness, but in the bush it continues soft, this softness affording another security to the chickens by causing the wolves and foxes to quit the bush in the winter, though they live there by preference the rest of the year. In the evening the chickens fly down either headlong into a drift or run a little and then dive. Each makes his own hole. They generally go down six inches or so and along about a foot. By morning their breath has formed a solid wall in front of them so that they invariably go out at one end. In Ontario observers are less likely to have the non-conducting powers of snow impressed upon them as in Manitoba, so I may illustrate this. For days together the thermometer may range at twenty degrees below zero (F) with six inches of snow resting on a quarter of an inch of ice, completely keeping the water beneath at a temperature of thirty-two degrees above zero. Without the snow the same ice increased in a day to a thickness of two inches. Likewise, under ten inches of snow the ground continued unfrozen, after the thermometer had for one month ranged from zero to forty degrees below. Thus we can easily see that under six inches of snow and one inch of feathers, the chickens do not suffer even at fifty degrees below. ...

So long as the prairie chicken are abundant in their wild state it is unlikely that farmers will try to domesticate them, but with the anticipated influx of immigration it is just possible they will not be so abundant in a few years. I think that the experiment is worth trying, however, and if any member of the Historical Society is inclined to take the trouble, I will endeavor to find the necessary stock to start with. ...

Page revised: 21 June 2014

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