WASHINGTON — BURWELL, Neb. — Under an indigo pre-dawn sky, as a frigid wind whipped across the plains, a half-dozen brown-and-white birds emerged from tufts of dry grass. They emitted a low cooing sound, akin to the hooting of an owl.
Then the greater prairie chickens started their show, scurrying around to mark their territory. When one encroached on another's turf, the defending animal charged, forcing the interloper to leap in the air with a flurry of feathers. As the birds became more animated, the orange air sacs on each side of their necks swelled, allowing them to make a louder coo known as "booming."
The entire display had a single intended beneficiary — a female greater prairie-chicken that selects the dominant male for mating — that never bothered to appear. It might have been too cold for her. But the birds still had an audience: tourists sitting silently in a pair of parked yellow school buses with their windows cracked open. These humans may represent the prairie chickens' best chance for survival.
The northern Great Plains — 180 million acres stretching across five states and two Canadian provinces — is one of the last three large swaths of grasslands in the world, along with two in Mongolia and Patagonia. Prairie chickens have roamed the Plains for millennia, but this region is under pressure from competing financial incentives to grow corn and soybeans or pursue wind energy and shale-oil extraction.
Now an unlikely coalition of ranchers and environmentalists is working to keep the prairie intact, and in the process, preserve the animals and a traditional way of life.
As the country's prairie shrinks — U.S. farmers converted 1.3 million acres to corn and soybean fields between 2006 and 2011, according to a recent study — the birds who depend on it are increasingly imperiled. The birds, which include the greater and lesser prairie chicken as well as several species of sage grouse, are seen by scientists and federal officials as the best indicator of how the prairie is faring.