To the Point: Something About a Prairie

Something about native prairie makes the walking bird hunter want to take it on. The challenge is what will come first—the horizon or the thunder flush from a covey of sharptails or prairie chickens your pointing dog holds in checkmate while you hurry to catch up. For the lover of landscape, it’s the lure of a once-green sea of grass now toasted in burnished copper. Aldo Leopold said most books on nature don’t mention wind because they are written behind stoves. To be sure, wind is a staple of every prairie hunt. The slightest breeze inspires the showy heads of big bluestem to dance seductively. A strong wind can make shotgun barrels moan.

I live for these prairie sensations and the queer kuk-kuk-kuk of roused birds. With eyes as sharp as pronghorns’, prairie grouse run on their wings—another way of saying you may hear them before you see them, and then they will be out of range. When hunting ruffed grouse and woodcock, we measure success in flushes per hour; with prairie grouse, it’s the miles between flushes that count. 

The prairie chicken’s original range in North America was 250 million acres of largely Midwestern tallgrass prairie. Huntable numbers of chickens still exist in Kansas, South Dakota, Nebraska and Minnesota. At one time sharptails, which prefer shortgrass prairie, lived over much of the continent from the southern Great Plains to Alaska and from Hudson Bay to the Rockies. Today they are legal to hunt in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Canada and Alaska.

Unrestrained use of axe and plow paradoxically destroyed while it created. The leveling of Eastern hardwoods tolled the bell for the passenger pigeon, but who can argue that the second-growth timber that followed was unhealthy for grouse and woodcock? The plow that turned over Eastern coastland and triggered extinction for the heath hen pushed prairie chickens west from Illinois and Iowa into Kansas and the Dakotas. 

Europe sent its immigrants and also introduced Hungarian partridge, which today coexist with prairie grouse wherever wheat farming meets native grassland. I remember a sharptail hunt a few years ago on an abandoned farm in Saskatchewan where my setter pointed a covey of Huns hiding beneath a grain truck with flat tires. The license plate said 1948. I’ll wager the truck’s still there along with partridge and sharptails and endless fields of shorn wheat.

Thoreau said it best: “Our horizon is never quite at our elbows.” If you hunt birds of the prairie, you can become part of something that was. And still is. 

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