Prairie chicken tracked on 1,165-mile journey in Missouri and Iowa

A female prairie chicken wearing a GPS tracking collar surprised and puzzled biologists this summer by traveling 1,165 miles in big circles in southern Iowa and northern Missouri. The hen labeled Bird No. 112 was trapped in western Nebraska and released April 4 in Iowa near the Missouri border, north of Bethany, for a prairie chicken restoration program. Since then, she has avoided fatal dangers such as predators, vehicles, fences and utility lines in a ceaseless journey that has slowed but not stopped. “We don’t really know why,” said Jennifer A. Vogel, who has monitored Bird No. 112’s travels as a post-doctoral research associate at Iowa State University. “It seems like she was searching for something.”

Bird No. 112’s travels include: a northerly jaunt in Iowa after her release; a southerly loop into Missouri and then north back into Iowa; a visit to St. Joseph on Missouri’s western boundary; a swing east past Kirksville in the state’s north central region; a move back to Iowa and then flights past the bridges of Madison County southwest of Des Moines; a second trip to St. Joseph; a second visit to the Trenton area; then a slow march back through northwest Missouri into Iowa where she was feeding and nesting a couple of counties north of the state line near Kent, Iowa July 29.

“It’s neat that she’s capable of traveling that far, but we hope all the hens don’t do that or we won’t get any reproduction,” said Len Gilmore, a wildlife management biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) who studies prairie chickens.

Biologists are not sure if some prairie chickens have always moved these distances, which would boost genetic diversity. Or, hen No. 112 may be looking for other prairie chickens and a landscape more resembling arid western Nebraska. Prairie chickens are endangered in Missouri. They were extirpated from Iowa by 1952 with only re-introduced birds there now in limited numbers.

Slightly more than 100 prairie chickens remain in Missouri where hundreds of thousands once roamed. Their decline is primarily because less than one-percent of the state’s native grasslands remain. Most of those birds are in two flocks in west central Missouri. The MDC bolstered their numbers and genetic diversity in recent years with birds translocated from Kansas.