Researchers discover unusual prairie chicken movement

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(Left) Jocelyn Olney, a natural resources graduate student, holds a banded prairie chicken. Olney is looking into why one prairie chicken traveled more than 30 miles in one season. (Right) A banded prairie chicken in the field.
Jen Smith and Cara Whalen | Courtesy
(Left) Jocelyn Olney, a natural resources graduate student, holds a banded prairie chicken. Olney is looking into why one prairie chicken traveled more than 30 miles in one season. (Right) A banded prairie chicken in the field.

While humans have long giggled (and groaned) at the reasons why chickens cross the road, one prairie chicken has UNL researchers looking beyond the punch lines.

Jocelyn Olney, a natural resources graduate student, was part of a School of Natural Resources research team that banded 70 prairie chickens living within 25 kilometers of a wind farm near Ainsworth, Neb. The project — which uses non-baited, walk-in funnel traps — is designed to track the birds' movements and see if those movements are influences by the presence of the wind farm.

This fall, one of the birds was recovered by a hunter more than 30 miles from its lek grounds — areas where the birds gather for spring mating, and where researchers conducted the trapping/banding/release. And, while that kind of movement is not unusual for a human, it's peculiar for a bird that normally stays within five miles of lek grounds during breeding, nesting and brood-rearing seasons.

Olney and other UNL researchers are now looking into what drew this one prairie chicken so far away from its lek.

"One misconception is that prairie chickens migrate, which is not true," Olney said. "Traveling long distances is quite taxing for them in terms of energy expenditure."

Each of the birds trapped were outfitted with unique combination of bands that allow for easy identification from a distance. The females were also outfitted with either a very-high frequency (VHF) radio transmitter collar or a rump-mounted satellite tag.

The ID bands are important because if a prairie chicken is predated or hunted, researchers can tell the ID of the individual bird. Data collected through the band identifications helps assess how far the birds travel from the leks of capture and previous sites, and whether the movements are influenced by the wind farm.

The well-traveled prairie chicken was tagged with a VHF radio collar. However, researchers never found her during the spring or summer breeding, nesting and brood-rearing seasons, which may indicate that she traveled the distance during the spring or summer.

"Most people think these birds stay put all year," said Larkin Powell, professor of natural resources and director of the Great Plains Cooperative Ecosystems Studies Unit.

Olney said the birds — which can fly, but only for short periods, close to the ground — are simply not built for traveling long distances.

"It's possible that she traveled this distance during the fall, which would be less unexpected, but still quite the journey for a prairie chicken that is not built for traveling long distances," she said.

Prairie chickens were historically found across 20 states and four Canadian provinces, but due to land conversion to agriculture and subsequent habitat loss over the past 80 years, prairie chicken range has been significantly reduced. Nebraska has one of the largest populations of greater prairie chickens in the United States.

Research led by Powell, Walt Schacht, rangeland ecology professor, and students continues to expand the knowledge on the nesting and brood rearing habitat needs of the birds.

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