doing the prairie chicken dance
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
I left my comfort zone this weekend and spent it with a bunch of hard-core birders at the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival in Woodward, Oklahoma. Because I’m a wee bit of an idiot, I didn’t realize until I’d committed exactly how hard-core the event would be. It was the kind of event where I met people for whom seeing the prairie chickens dance was the culmination of a lifelong dream. No, really. Sometimes, I sat in on conversations in which I had no idea what people were saying. Imagine sitting in on chitchat with a bunch of rocket scientists. That’s what it was like, except the topic was birds.
I had to rally all my powers of interpretation every time Bird Chick (a k a Sharon Stiteler), the keynote speaker, talked about birds in casual conversation. Once, I just turned to her and said, “I have no idea what you just said,” which made her laugh and she explained. It had to do with banding raptors.
Artist and speaker Debby Kaspari, whose topic was sketching nature, was more my speed in some regards—art talk I understand—but she, too, knows more about birds than I know about anything. When she talked art, I was with her. When she talked birds, I was lost.
Fortunately, these were very nice people who never laughed at stupid questions and took the time during bird watching excursions to actually point out birds to me as I flailed around with my low-rent binoculars. If I asked, they let me peek through their real binoculars, and Bird Chick set up her scope for all to look through. Wow. Our guide also brought a scope, so from time to time I actually got to see what everyone was talking about, as opposed to the blurry silhouettes my binoculars provided.
For the most part, I walked around all weekend feeling kind of bumbling and clueless.
Which is OK, actually. Sometimes it’s good to get in over your head. It’s kind of like lifting weights. When your muscles start failing, that’s when the muscle building occurs. I learned a lot about birds this weekend. (And bees, actually, since Bird Chick also is a beekeeper. Really fascinating stuff. Bees lead complicated lives.) Plus, I enjoyed immersion in a subculture.
And most important, I got to see the dance of the endangered lesser prairie chicken.
This was my kind of bird watching, even though it involved getting up before dawn and sitting in tiny blind for hours. But you couldn’t miss the birds—as I so often do.
They were right there, just a few feet in front of us, doing their dance, singing their song, making every attempt to propagate their species. (I didn't even try to capture on film. Click through to Debby's and Sharon's sites to see images far better from anything I could have produced.) I found the whole thing genuinely moving. Dance, little chickens, dance. Stomp your little chicken feet and keep on keeping on!
Among the pressures on the fascinating little fellas’ survival are barbed wire and windmills--this was a close encounter, for me, with the implications we have to consider before we hoist T. Boone Pickens on our shoulders as the savior of the environment. Not that wind power is bad, but it needs study before we plunge right in.
And after we spent the morning watching the chickens dance, we spent some time tromping around on the glorious Oklahoma prairie, marking barbed wire fences to help the chickens out, which just involves clipping little pieces of plastic onto the fences. Evidently, dead prairie chickens are rarely found on fences that have been marked, unlike unmarked fences. Good enough for me.
Dance for your lives, little prairie chickens. There are a bunch of people who care whether or not you survive. And, entirely by accident, I’m now among them.
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