Not long ago, this valley was part of a large ranch. When the ranch was developed, the founders’ granddaughter received the parcel on which our home sits. Her lumberjack husband constructed their home from trees on this site.
I hope he was a better lumberjack than he was a builder. The house creaked when a bear plodded across the roof. Mice held conventions in the living room. The fireplace doubled as a meat smoker. It all had to go.
But before it went, another owner left a trash pile to welcome the furry and fanged, defying laws and enraging neighbors who found bear and mountain lion dangerous. Neighbors who grabbed rifles to hold a bead on dining predators when the little lady engaged in intimate conversations with her guests.
Our valley was (and in many ways, still is) a Wild-West kind of place.
After we pulled down the house, varmints eventually came to terms with the end of their garbage gravy train. Bear stroll through every year or two. Mountain lions leave prints and tail-drags every winter. A bobcat serenades us after every tough snow storm. Fox, deer and elk are more dependable than our postal delivery.
And then there’s the prairie chicken (pinnated grouse).
Let me be clear: this is no ordinary prairie chicken. This is an ENORMOUS prairie chicken. A LEGENDARY prairie chicken. A prairie chicken about which neighbors began inquiring immediately. “Have you seen the prairie chicken yet?” “Have you fed the prairie chicken? She fed it out-of-hand!” “Does the prairie chicken have a mate this year?”
Noting that I lived amidst the unhinged, I researched prairie chicken. It was the end of May and our famous resident remained hidden all summer. Almost six months later, about this time, I noticed a brown volleyball in an aspen. We don’t play volleyball and volleyballs are white, so I investigated.
The overinflated orb had feathers and a beak. A tail and skinny neck. I walked toward the tree. The Mother of All Prairie Chickens didn’t budge. Its head bobbled in and out a couple of times, like a pigeon’s, and I thought of the Muppet song, “Doing the Pigeon.” (You can thank me for that glorious hyperlink.)
As I stood almost (no fool here) under the bird, it nestled onto the branch. I knew then that I was a Chosen One. Should I genuflect, bow, or offer canned corn? I snapped photos to prove that the icon was alive, and wondered if I could substitute grouse in a chicken pot pie. Noting that the average life of the prairie chicken is a year and a half (I did my research on the centrocercus urophasianus), this offspring was genetically wired: to return to this meadow and to be a Prairie Chicken on Steroids.
For more than five years now, I have been buds with this ruling class of prairie chicken. One or two giants among prairie chickens migrate through twice a year at the very hinge of our seasons. Two clucked through this spring and one scared the wazoo out of me yesterday by emerging from under a bench I passed.
It’s our cycle of humans and animals. Ranchers and lumberjacks, crazy ladies and authors held more closely to the earth by interaction with creatures great and small.
And that can of corn in the pantry? Yeah. I’m totally doing it. Busted!