Editor’s Note: This article is part of our ‘Coulees to Muskeg – A Saskatchewan Environmental History’ series. This series is a partnership between NiCHE and the Saskatchewan History & Folklore Society (SHFS). All articles in the series appear on the NiCHE website and are published in SHFS’s Folklore magazine. You can become a member of SHFS and subscribe to Folklore HERE. To contribute to this series, see the CFP HERE.
The Sharp-tailed Grouse, colloquially known as the “prairie chicken,” was named Saskatchewan’s official bird in 1945.1 Since then, its numbers have declined steeply, up to 70-90 percent among some populations in the United States and Canada.2 The causes of this decline include loss of their native prairie habitat, an increase in agricultural chemical use, and overhunting.3
In the decades since the grouse was named the provincial bird, the land has irrevocably changed. The prairie of my childhood is gone, never to return, unless an even greater change is wrought in the minds and hearts of those who decide its fate.
I, too, have changed. I have journeyed from childhood to old age. But the memory of my childhood prairie remains as fresh as anything that happened last week.
Chickens are not noted for their brains.
As a child, I assumed prairie chickens were as flighty and unpredictable as those in our chicken coop. To me they seemed every bit as witless as their tame cousins. As my siblings and I rode along quiet country roads to school, the quiet would sometimes be shattered by a great whir of wings as a few frenzied birds took flight almost from under our horses’ hooves. Our sedate old mare nearly lost her rider more than once because of a close encounter with a prairie chicken.
When my Dad came in from doing chores one cold winter morning and told us about digging a dozen prairie chickens out of a snowbank, we were glad he had saved them but giggled at their silliness. The snow that fell overnight had settled on them as they slept cuddled together and by morning an icy crust had formed, trapping them until Dad freed them.
“Isn’t that just like a chicken?” We chortled.
Flighty. Brainless. Silly!
But my opinion changed dramatically one spring evening.
Although snow had almost gone and the crocuses were out, the hills had not yet greened. It was one of those overcast April days that sucks all colour from land and sky. But what did we care? Dad had promised us a surprise. He told us that when we finished supper and evening chores, he had something wonderful to show us.
Mom and Dad and all five of us kids piled into the car. Dad drove the lane and turned onto the trail that wound its way past an abandoned farmyard towards the hill pasture. We realized we were going to drive, in the car, all the way to the Big Hills. We passed the dam and the hay field, stopped once or twice to open and close gates. The trail ended. Slowly, avoiding rocks and gullies and steep slopes, the car climbed higher to the top of a lonely butte.
Dad stopped the car and said, “Now, I don’t want to hear a peep out of anyone.”
He told us to roll down the windows, sit still, be quiet and just watch. So that is what we did.
Time passed. We watched. We listened. Nothing happened. We fidgeted. The grey evening grew greyer.
Then, in the gathering dusk, we heard it – at first a nearly inaudible thrumming, then a clicking and whirring.
At last, we saw them. So perfectly matched to the colours of last year’s prairie grass, I had to strain my eyes to make out their shapes. Wings spread wide, tiny feet shuffling, the prairie chicken pranced, sashayed, and swaggered.
Oblivious to our car almost at the edge of their lek, ignoring the wide-eyed children peering down at them, they obeyed an ancient and urgent call. They danced.
Only that once did Dad take us there. I have no idea how he, in his busy chore-driven days, had discovered their secret place. Maybe he had found it long ago when he himself was a boy, roaming the hills. For just that one evening he dared share the magic with his family.
Seventy years have come and gone since then. Their habitat has been invaded, their food source depleted, their nesting areas broken by farms and golf courses and cottage developments. It is rare nowadays to find a lek where they still dance.
Yet after all those years, that stretch of pastureland remains intact. The bald hilltop is still there. Native prairie, protected by my brother, the rancher, surrounds it on all sides.
And come spring, maybe the prairie chicken will dance.
Feature Image: “Sharp-tailed Grouse – IMG7622,” gm_pentaxfan, Happy Valley No. 10, Saskatchewan, January 2011.
- Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan, “Sharp-Tailed Grouse,” A Field Guide to the Prairie, accessed January 7, 2021, https://www.npss.sk.ca/games/?p=look-up&id=44#:~:text=Adult%20males%20have%20a%20yellow,Grouse%20is%20Saskatchewan’s%20provincial%20bird; though referred to as a “prairie chicken” in Saskatchewan, the sharp-tailed grouse is actually a different species from the greater and lesser prairie chicken, which have a range south of Saskatchewan, Dakota Birder, “Sharp-tailed Grouse vs. Prairie Chicken,” South Dakota Birds, accessed January 7, 2021, https://www.sdakotabirds.com/diffids/prairiechicken_stgrouse.htm.
- E.E. Leupin and M.J. Chutter, “Status of the Sharp-Tailed Grouse columbianus subspecies (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus) in British Columbia,” British Columbia Ministry of Environment (Victoria, British Columbia: March 2007), 24-26, http://a100.gov.bc.ca/pub/eirs/finishDownloadDocument.do?subdocumentId=7723.
- For more on sharp-tailed grouse decline see: Cameron Broatch, “Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus jamesi), Lek Surveys, Northwest Region, 1999,” Alberta Conservation Association (Alberta: 1999), https://www.ab-conservation.com/downloads/report_series/Sharp-Tailed-Grouse-Lek-Surveys-Northwest-Region-1999.pdf; Joël Potié, “Sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) in a resource development area at the northern edge of the species’ range” (Masters Thesis, McGill University, April 2020), file:///C:/Users/jessi/OneDrive/Documents/NiCHE/SKENVHIST/SharpTailedGrouse.pdf.