Geese bring back fond memories of prairie chickens

By Ryn Gargulinski: Guest columnist

Since New Mexico’s annual Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival hits the High Plains in Milnesand next weekend, I did a very logical thing — I went to look at geese.

Although geese and lesser prairie chickens may seem miles apart from each other, mainly because they are, they do have certain things in common.

They both have feathers. They both make weird noises — the chickens with their ear-splitting booming and the geese with their humorous honks.

And they are both celebrated by hundreds of folks who spend big money to go look at them.

Perhaps not surprisingly — birding just surpassed gardening as the No. 1 outdoor activity — there is an entire flock of avian festivals pocketed all over the globe right about now.

We get prairie chickens in New Mexico, Kansas and Wisconsin. California gives us a four-day affair centered around the Aleutian goose. Ravens and eagles bask in Canadian celebrations. And don’t forget the nearly daily birding events in Brooklyn, N.Y., where kids try to spook the pigeons perched on overpasses.

Although all these beaky bashes may tug at the heartstrings, there will only be one Milnesand. The High Plains Lesser Prairie festival will forever hatch joy in my mind for a number of reasons.

It was my first assignment when I landed at the newspaper in New Mexico, and I even broke all self-imposed rules, regulations and ethics to attend — I started a new job a week early.

I was then thrust into a long, dry drive to Milnesand, which sits about 60 miles south of Clovis, while I was still having trouble driving the half mile from the newspaper to my new house.

The drive seemed to take hours, covering miles of flat road that looked the same ahead of me as it did behind me. I nearly succumbed to that driving hypnosis that makes you fall asleep at the wheel and bash into a tree (unless you’re in treeless New Mexico where you would simply veer off the road and keep going until you ran out of gas).

It also entailed nearly turning around several times thinking I must have missed Milnesand. After all, it couldn’t be this far out — and it’s not like I could look it up as it’s not even on a map.

But I knew I made it when I saw dozens of campers, cars, vans and smiling people who looked like they liked prairie chickens.

The place was packed with all kinds of folks who gave me a crash course on the feathered friends. They explained the lifespan, the environment, how New Mexico’s High Plains has about 862 varieties of grass. The cleared up what the heck the leks was — and they were not referring to the money they use in Albania.

But never mind all that, I got to see the chickens in action myself the next morning. It was the only time I’ve sat on the cold floor of a van stuffed with strangers in the wee hours of the morning and actually enjoyed it. I remember a similar scene from my prom, I think, but I don’t think I was enjoying it.

The prom, too, was dappled with courting rituals. But the prairie chickens were much more fun, with the males dancing and prancing and booming on display while a lone female watched with a quite bored expression, not unlike those aloof women at the bar.

I also got a hearty lesson in Southwestern hospitality. Since I had driven to the festival at the last minute with nowhere to stay, a kind couple immediately opened their arms — and their couch — where I spent the night in a cocoon more comfortable than my own bed.

I was fed with New Mexico beef and stories, and with a whole new understanding of why people come to the festival and why the birds are so well-loved.

Let’s not forget, too, one of the absolute highlights of the whole excursion — the one of a kind Lesser Prairie Chicken traveling coffee mug.

Of course, this is not to say each and every bird doesn’t have something to teach us. The Aleutian geese amaze with their sheer numbers, their bounce-back from near extinction and their migration for thousands of miles.

Eagles instruct on small mammal eradication as well as give us something to strive for if we ever come back as an animal. Ravens gave Edgar Allan Poe a dollop of dark inspiration. And the pigeons, alas, the pigeons — nevermore will I park beneath an overpass.

Ryn Gargulinski is a former resident of eastern New Mexico. Contact her at: