Houck provides update on greater prairie chicken research at Fort Riley

Mike Houck presented a slideshow about greater prairie chickens at Fort Riley Monday night at Sportsman's Acres.

A Fort Riley biologist discussed new research methods being utilized to study the base’s greater prairie chickens Monday night.

The Geary County Fish & Game Association held its monthly meeting Monday at Sportsman’s Acres, and members heard a presentation from guest speaker Mike Houck, a threatened and endangered species biologist at Fort Riley. Houck brought members up to date on the current status of the greater prairie chicken on base property.

Fort Riley surveys birds each year, and only 150 birds were surveyed in 2018, which was down from previous years. Houck said that was due to the fact that weather conditions were better in previous years. There has also been an increase in wildfires, which impacted the number of birds able to be surveyed. Out of those 150 birds, there were 18 leks. Houck said it was interesting how they want to lek — an aggregation of males gathered to engage in competitive displays to entice females — in tall grass, and that it is interesting how they operate. He concluded by saying there were more chicken hunters in general in the 1980s.

Houck spoke about a study he and other researchers conducted in 2005. This was the first research project that studied critical habitat characteristics associated with greater prairie chicken nesting. Their goal was to identify their seasonal survival, movement and home range in Fort Riley. For this, they used walk-in traps. They trapped the birds, which were then weighed, sexed, aged and equipped with color leg brands. Select birds were then fitted with radio transmitters and monitored daily. But after all that work, the project ended up being unsuccessful due to an unexpected military closure. There were no successful reproduction or collared females recorded due to this as well. 

Now, researchers are conducting another study. The objectives of this experiment are to determine annual lek location, model relative effects of land cover and disturbance (military activities, fires and haying) on placement of leks and recording the number of chickens attending leks. Twenty GPS satellite transmitters have been placed on hens. Researchers will be monitoring development, distance, habitat and landscape characteristics. Further observation will be done on nesting/incubation, clutch size, basic nest size vegetation characteristics, fate of the nest, distance to anthropogenic features and distance to the edge.

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