IN SEARCH OF CHICKENS
For a bird hunter living in eastern Iowa, I’ve shot a lot of prairie chickens. I shot my first chicken in Nebraska in 1986, 27 years ago. The following year I shot chickens in all three major chicken states, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. I’m an odd sort, after a few years of prairie grouse hunting, I became species specific. I intentionally targeted just chickens or just sharptails in my bag. I not only had to immediately discern between juvenile pheasants and prairie grouse but also the more subtle differences between sharptails and chickens. I learned to notice subtleties in game bird flight and sound that most hunters could ignore. In all of the specific dual limits I’ve attempted, I have not once shot a sharptail that I thought was a chicken, vice versa, nor have I ever mistakenly shot a pheasant. If I can do this with my poor vision and hearing, so can you.
There’s really no excuse for confusing a hen pheasant for a prairie chicken. Prairie chickens are chocolate brown on the back and sides, blending to a gray breast with horizontal dark bars. The bars aren’t identifiable in flight but they do lend to a darker appearing breast. Hen pheasants on the other hand are medium brown all over with a yellowish tint to their breast. Prairie chickens have short rounded tails with a heavy, dark brown band across the tips. You may recall that early settlers referred to prairie chickens as “Square Tails” and “Yellow Legs”. Chickens do have yellow feet and fully feathered legs which pheasants do not have, but I doubt that you’ll notice that in flight. I hope you all realize that hen pheasants have pointed tails.
Pheasant broods in September will not even vaguely resemble chickens. Pheasants nest a couple of weeks later than prairie grouse and by September, young pheasants aren’t nearly as developed as juvenile grouse or chickens. Pheasant plumage is still mottled and they fly clumsily. September pheasant chicks flutter along for a few yards gradually losing momentum and altitude and clumsily crash land. There’s nothing controlled or graceful about a juvenile pheasant. Most juvenile roosters will be developing color that chickens never have.
If you flush a bird that is not a strong flier, Don’t Shoot! Even juvenile chickens are strong fliers from the first week of the season, juvenile pheasants are not.
In flight, the difference is much greater. Prairie chickens come up from cover at a steady rate, they don’t seem to accelerate like pheasants do. Also, chicken wing beats are deeper sounding, as all grouse are. Pheasants have a metallic sound to their wing beat. In flight, prairie chickens see-saw, rocking gently back and forth as if they only have full power in one wing at a time. At more distant flushes, these tips may not be as helpful, but if the bird appears to be short, dark and stocky with an irregular flight, everything that a hen pheasant is not, it’s a chicken. I doubt if many of you will be hunting prairie chickens without first having a lot of experience with pheasants.
When hunting the early prairie grouse season in Western Nebraska and South Dakota, I never worried about shooting a hen pheasant. But as I transitioned to eastern Nebraska, pheasants became more of a reality. But I still expected to shoot on every flush. If you’re going to be a successful prairie grouse hunter, that’s how shooting is done.
As always, if in doubt, don’t shoot and if all this fails and you can‘t identify the bird in your hand, prairie chickens have dark meat.
Prairie Chickens South of Interstate 80
In the 1980’s I spent several seasons hunting pheasants and quail in southern Nebraska and North central Kansas. I lived on the state border for a year just to do more pheasant and quail hunting. I did most of my Kansas hunting with a friend, Larry, from Phillipsburg. On occasion we would cut across a cut milo field to a favored pheasant or quail draw and it seemed that invariably we would flush a prairie chicken or two. Of course, no one shot because we weren’t hunting yet. But the flush would invariably be met with a chorus of “Hey! That was a chicken!” as the bird sailed out of range.
I realize the accepted chicken hunting practice in Kansas is to post around a stubble field and pass shoot the birds flying in and out. My experience hunting chickens in Nebraska was that all of the chickens flying into a field for the mourning feed do not leave. There are some lazy chickens who negate the need to fly in and out for a morning and afternoon feed by spending the entire day in the stubble field. Those are the birds that pheasant hunters flush during mid-day.
My limited experience of pass shooting chickens, coupled with readings is that as an individual, it’s a waste of time. I have read many accounts and invariably a few members of the party get some shooting, many get none, and no one shoots the two-bird limit. If you’ve read the same writing I have, I’m sure you’ll agree. There’s got to be a better way.
My friend Larry had a different twist. They didn’t hunt in groups. Usually just one or two guys would sit a field before they started after pheasants or quail. They didn’t post around the outside edge, they hunted chickens like ducks. They headed to the highest spot near the center of the field and sat in the stubble. It’s that simple. With a two bird per man daily bag limit, they shot a lot of limits of chickens before the sun was up.
I haven’t hunted Kansas for many years, but I plan to return in a couple of years to shoot a combination limit of chickens and bobwhite quail. For chickens, you’ll find me in the middle of a milo stubble field at day break and walking the same stubble in the afternoon if I’m short a bird.
The best advice I can give you when pheasant hunting in Northcentral Kansas is to forget about the roosters, they identify themselves. This area offers one of the best possibilities for a non-prairie grouse hunter to shoot his first prairie chicken. Don’t let it pass you buy because you don’t know what to look for. Expect to flush prairie chickens.
If a single brown bird flushes, expect it to be a chicken. In my stubble field hunting experience I’ve seldom flushed more than one or two chickens together during mid-day. You will need to abandon the initial, “Don’t shoot! It’s a hen mentality” and embrace a “Shoot that chicken!“ mentality. Shot refusal should come when the gun hits your shoulder. This gives you the added split second for positive identification. If you wait for identification and then raise your gun the chicken will likely be out of range and the opportunity lost. As a conscientious hunter, you will not accidentally shoot a hen pheasant, but you may intentionally shoot your first prairie chicken!
Let’s go shoot some Chickens!!