When early Americans crossed the Appalachians into Kentucky and Tennessee they found open prairies. Undoubtably deep dark prairie soils under lay all of this habitat type. Prairie Chickens were again abundant in numbers we can only imagine. Slowly the landscape opened in the forested areas and on the edges of the barrens or prairies.
In Illinois most settlers avoided stopping in the open prairies, because the belief held at that time was - if the soil could not support a tree then it certainly must not be able to grow food.
Of course, these early immigrants did not understand what was actually happening underneath their feet.
These prairie grasses were forming soils which were among the richest, most fertile on this planet. The incredible explosion of the American Agricultural movement lay only a few inches away. But the sod was so thick so matted and dense that it took a special man to see what needed to be done. John Deere. In 1837, John Deere took the idea of using steel tipped plows and refined the shape of the cutting edge to create the first plow that would cut the thick sods and not gum up with the hearty soils clay component.
The prairies became corn and wheat oats barley and rye. The process of havesting spilled the seeds from heads and also many stalks were bound together into standing shocks.
The response to waste grain created healthier wintering populations of these birds. Standing shocks allowed for easy feeding on the grain heads too. In turn, healthier females produced better numbers of eggs and healthier chicks. the new openness in the tall grass proved ideal for raising young prairie chickens and suddenly within 20 years, Greater Prairie Chickens occurred in numbers which we can only estimate.
Ron Westenhaver, a long time prairie chicken biologist extrapolated numbers and concluded that there were up to 14 million Greater Prairie Chickens during the 1850’s in Illinois. In consultation with other prairie chicken biologists, I developed a different model based upon bell curves of habitat carrying capacity and reached a conclusion that there were far lower numbers. However, 8.9 million Greater Prairie Chickens is still not an insignificant population.
The fact that Illinois once had 21 million acres of native grasslands is beyond dispute. How many Greater Prairie Chickens occupied those prairies may never be know precisely, but it certainly was a huge number.
The key point is that Greater Prairie Chickens did adapt to European man expansion into its habitat and it thrived along side us. When human pressure became too much, just like many other species, Prairie Chicken numbers began to decline.