Why Did the Chicken Cross the Prairie?

A prairie chicken walked 1,180 miles between April and August, covering parts of southern Iowa and northern Missouri and setting the record for its species. Continue reading →

A prairie chicken walked 1,180 miles between April and August, covering parts of southern Iowa and northern Missouri and setting the record for its species, according to the Des Moines Register.

Why the chicken crossed the prairie is unknown. The bird, who is known simply as "Bird No. 112," was GPS-tagged by scientists who are working on a chicken relocation project in Iowa. Scientists moved her to the state from Nebraska, and she may have simply been bewildered by her surroundings, said Jennifer Vogel, a post-doctoral research associate at Iowa State University, to the Des Moines Register.

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"I first noticed that she was covering larger distances than the other birds just a couple of weeks after she was released," Vogel told Discovery News via email. The birds are not known to be great travelers.

But not to worry. No. 112 has now found a good spot to stay put in southwestern Union County, Iowa.

No. 112 is part of Iowa's efforts to restock the state with a bird that was once abundant. The Greater Prairie chicken is in the grouse family, and makes a distinctive "booming" sound that was once characteristic of the Iowa prairies. In the mating season, the males perform distinctive bowing, feet-tapping, cacophonous dances as the females select the best of them. The bird's scientific name – Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus – literally means "drummer of love."

Destruction of the prairie depleted their populations across the United States and their numbers have declined by more than 90 percent over the last century. It was once among the most abundant birds in the country.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been restocking the bird - primarily in small, protected areas - though not very successfully.

Between 1980 and 1994, the DNR moved 558 birds to Iowa, but most of them did not survive for unknown reasons. So the agency tried again, moving 73 birds in 2013, 40 of them to Iowa and 33 to Missouri.

These birds are tagged with a satellite or GPS transmitters so scientists can monitor how successful they are, and how they use habitat. Bird No. 112 was one of these transplants.

It is unclear why No. 112 took so long to choose a spot to live. Studies have shown that birds in general choose habitats based on the vegetation available in the area, and the terrestrial features of the landscape, such as rock. They prefer diverse vegetation and shrubs, which help them hide from predators and keep warm.

Image: Greater prairie-chickens. Courtesy: US Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain-Prairie.

An adult male Pacific Wilson's warbler,

Wilsonia pusilla

, feeding a fledgling brown-headed cowbird,

Molothrus ater

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