Out There: Last dance

Editor's note: Watch for Keith "Catfish" Sutton appearing on "The Casting Couch," a one-minute commentary on the wild world of fishing that airs on Saturdays during "BassCenter" on ESPN2.

Hiding in tall grass, an Indian observes the dance of a male prairie chicken.

The bird makes a short run, then pats the ground rapidly with its feet. Orange air sacs on its neck inflate like bubbles. The bird's tail stands erect, the wings droop, tufts of neck feathers are raised.

With a convulsive movement of its head, the chicken gives a booming call that carries across Arkansas' Grand Prairie. Whoo-dooh-dooh.

Other birds dance nearby. The males approach each other in a warlike attitude, lowering and waving their heads, leaping at each other and striking their wings as they lunge. Several hens feed nearby, oblivious to the males' attentions.

The first male chases one opponent after another until they take wing. He flies after them for yards and returns to repeat the performance with a weaker bird. Then suddenly, with one common impulse, all the birds fly to an oak stand edging the prairie.

That afternoon, the Indian examines a prairie chicken killed with an arrow. He studies the creature's smooth lines, then transfers the shape to a piece of clay. When he is done, the effigy vessel is fired in the hot coals over which the bird roasts.

When night falls, the man dances around his fire in the manner of the bird that has fed him. His song carries across the prairie. Whoo-dooh-dooh. Whoo-dooh-dooh.

When crossing the flat expanse of east Arkansas' Grand Prairie, now converted to farmland, I cannot help but think of prairie chickens. I wonder what it was like to eavesdrop on their mating rituals, to hear their magical calls carried in the wind.

I once held in my hand an effigy pot from an Arkansas burial mound that bore the unmistakable shape of a prairie chicken. Examining it, I imagined the fascinating sights of dancing birds that must have inspired the creator.

The greater prairie chicken, a member of the grouse family, once lived throughout central North America, where native prairie intermixed with oak woodlands.

But in many areas, it disappeared, a victim of habitat destruction, market hunting, poaching and other factors. The species is extinct or in danger of extinction in 15 states and provinces, and is numerous enough to be legally hunted in only four — Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas and Colorado.

During the last quarter century, populations decreased in seven states and increased only in Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Prairie chickens once were common in my home state of Arkansas. Early references about hunting them appear in 19th century editions of the Arkansas Gazette. In the July 13, 1855, issue, a correspondent named "Sugar Creek" wrote:

The scenery along the prairie is beautiful. I saw many flocks of prairie chickens, called, I believe, by sporting gentlemen, grouse — the young birds, frequently as large as full grown partridges. At a house where I spent the night, I was told that the shooting in the fall was very fine ….

On Jan. 26, 1856, the newspaper carried a detailed account of a hunting expedition undertaken by "NY Spirit" and friends in Prairie County:

A short distance through the timber brought us to Grand Prairie, one of the most magnificent prairies the eye ever rested on this side of the Plains. Getting late, we rustled up a flock of grouse, wild as scared Indians …. We killed a great many birds — bagged 140; this was good shooting ….

Hunting Arkansas prairie chickens remained popular after the Civil War, particularly on the Grand Prairie. Birds in this region were at the eastern edge of the species' native range. Consequently, shooters from Eastern states often were drawn here when they wished to sample the extraordinary gunning the abundant prairie chickens provided.

Unfortunately, slaughter was the only thing on the minds of many visiting gunners. A resident of Carlisle at the time noted that "… 'sportsmen' from St. Louis and Chicago checked in at local hotels and gambled on who could kill the most prairie chickens, bets as high as $1,000 … this mongrel breed would go out on the prairie, kill from 80 to 100 a day, pull their heads off to bring them back to count and throw the chicken away."

As the Grand Prairie filled with settlers, market hunting for prairie chickens became a useful way to earn cash. The birds flourished with early farming that gave them oats and corn to feed on. And because their delicious flesh was highly desirable, thousands were killed and sold in the state's larger cities.

The heyday was brief. Years of overhunting had a cumulative effective on prairie chickens; the population experienced a sharp decline statewide.

Unfortunately, interest in protecting prairie chickens came too late.

For decades, agriculture had been devouring prairie habitat vital to the birds' well-being. Farmers from Illinois, Missouri, Iowa and Indiana moved to the Grand Prairie during the last decades of the 19th century, bringing with them a prairie agriculture based on oats, corn and dairying. The grasslands were plowed to accommodate their activities.

Rice entered the picture in the early 1900s. By 1905, 450 acres had been planted on the Grand Prairie, and by the next year that figure jumped tenfold. Other commodities such as cotton and soybeans were farmed, as well. And during the next few decades, almost every acre of the Grand Prairie was tilled for farmland. The few prairie chickens that persisted were doomed to extinction from loss of habitat.

The year when Arkansas's last prairie chicken vanished is subject to debate. It is believed, however, a few Grand Prairie birds survived into the early 1930s, and on the Ozark Mountain prairies a few lived until 1939.

Watching the sun rise above 50-acre Konecny Prairie Natural Area on a recent autumn day, I wondered if this 50-acre parcel, the largest remaining tract of virgin prairie left on the 1,000-square-mile Grand Prairie, could have been the prairie chicken's last stronghold.

I spoke to Sam Konecny of Stuttgart, who owns the property that is protected through an agreement with the Natural Heritage Commission.

He said his father often told stories of hunting prairie chickens on the family farm around World War I. But by the time Sam was born in the early 1930s, the birds had vanished from the remnant of prairie where the Konecny family raised hay.

"When I got older, and became more interested in the little bit of prairie remaining on our property, I thought about trying to restock prairie chickens," Konecny told me.

"But I learned that the 180 acres of prairie that remained weren't big enough to support the birds."

In a way, Konecny's story sums up the demise of prairie chickens in Arkansas. There simply wasn't enough prairie left to support the birds. And so the prairie chickens vanished. The same was true in many other areas throughout the prairie chicken's range.

Standing on Konecny Prairie, the sun warming my face, I pictured a lonely scene 60 or 70 years ago:

A single male prairie chicken struts through an opening in the tall prairie grass, lowering his head, spreading his wings and tail, looking around for another male to fight, a hen to impress. But there are no others. He is the last of a thousand generations. In the golden glow of a spring sunrise, he calls.

Whoo-dooh-dooh. Whoo-dooh-dooh.

He dances the last dance alone.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.