By Steve Phenicie
The first time I ever went birding was long ago – before gluten-free, before food trucks, before Greek yogurt, before kale, and maybe even before kiwi fruit. It was the spring of 1971, and I was a reporter for a weekly newspaper in northern Michigan.
As I look back many years later, I can relate that experience to the report last year that the population of birds in the United States and Canada has declined by nearly 3 billion since 1970. The birds I went to see that brisk, sunny morning nearly 50 years ago aren’t there anymore.
I was just a year out of college and belonged to a local Jaycee chapter. One of the members was a gung-ho environmentalist as well as a biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He asked whether we would like to see a local population of Greater Prairie Chickens “dance” on their booming grounds about 40 miles away. There wasn’t a birder in the group, and it sounded like a hokey thing to do, but about a half a dozen of us were willing to be hokey. I doubt if any of us – even the gung-ho environmentalist – had a pair of binoculars. We saw the birds, but unfortunately they weren’t in the mood to do what we went to see – sashay around. We got a laugh anyway, I guess, and went on our way. I wrote a story for my newspaper about the experience.
Michigan’s efforts to save this Prairie Chicken population was never popular with some of the locals, who didn’t see why tax dollars should be spent on something that “wasn’t good for anything.” I told one critic, a Chamber of Commerce type who was also a friend of mine, that perhaps people would come to see them and spend money in his grocery store, just as deer hunters brought money into the area. He wasn’t convinced. Anyway, despite the efforts to save them, the Prairie Chickens disappeared from Michigan by the early 1980s.
Today the Greater Prairie Chicken is found only in localized populations from Texas to North Dakota and is uncommon practically everywhere. Its historic range stretched from Massachusetts to south of the Rio Grande and up into Alberta and Saskatchewan. According to National Audubon, loss of the Greater Prairie Chicken’s grassy habitat is the single greatest threat to its survival.
The findings about the bird decline were reported in the world's leading scientific journal, Science, by researchers at seven institutions. Some of the data used was drawn from Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count.