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Paothong and Vance: Save the Last Dance


The interstate traveler is likely to mistake the vastness of the Great Plains for emptiness. Get off the highway, though, and you’ll find the grasslands full of life, especially in spring, when prairies and sagebrush steppes echo with the booming, crackling, stamping, and popping of grouse.

    Or at least some of them still do. Nop Paothong and Joel Vance’s lovely (if sometimes mournful) Last Dance both celebrates the springtime rituals of the chickens and chronicles their long, sad decline. The Heath Hen is gone from the dunes of Martha’s Vineyard, and the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken of coastal Texas seems determined to follow. From Dakota to Texas, barbwire fences, wind farms, and oil and gas wells have disrupted the spatial lives of Lesser Prairie-Chickens and sage-grouse, and human-caused global warming is shrinking the range of the once abundant Sharp-tailed Grouse.Buy It Now!I take all this personal. Not that many years before I was born, Greater Prairie-Chickens were still common enough in southeast Nebraska to be supper on occasion; nowadays, they are in steep decline even there, and like most birders, I don’t even bother looking and listening any more when I’m in that part of the world, preferring instead to spend my time driving three or four or five hours west to where I know the dance is still on.

Last Dance is a large-format volume printed on heavy glossy paper. As splendid as the photographs are–Paothong is the staff photographer for the Missouri Department of Conservation–this is not just a picture book for the coffee table. Joel Vance’s engaging text briefly treats the history, a bit of the biology, and the prospects of each taxon included (three Greater Prairie-Chicken subspecies, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, the Sharp-tailed Grouse, and the two sage-grouse). As dim as the future sometimes seems for these birds, there are encouraging stories here, too: the young biology student who with “her mother loaded a VW van with a home-made blind and took a trip to Colorado to study Gunnison sage-grouse,” and the tentative first steps of an ecotourism industry dependent on the survival of prairie-chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse.

Each of the texts is followed by a portfolio of photos, a dozen and a half or more depicting the birds, their habitat, and often the other animals they share it with. Coffee table books, no matter how beautiful, usually bore me after I’ve flipped a few pages and oohed a few aahs, but the consistent high quality of Paothong’s work and the narrative force of his photography–these dancing, strutting, prancing birds are doing something, something literally vital–captivate even the most blase reader/looker.

The book ends with a discussion of current conservation efforts being undertaken to save the grassland grouse. Here the authors drive home the urgency of their case by considering the birds in the order of the peril they face, from the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken–hanging on by the slender thread of captive breeding–to the Greater Prairie-Chicken, whch has shown encouraging signs of adapting to cropland and is being reintroduced with some success in parts of its historical range. “It all comes down to habitat,” the authors conclude,and there are small, hopeful signs, even in the face of energy exploitation and the intensification of agriculture, that we’re finally starting to get it.

I’m sure that we can expect a second edition of this book at some point, and I hope that it is subjected to close editorial scrutiny, ridding it of the occasional ornithological errors (“There is a fairly widespread opinion that heath hens merely were an Eastern adaptation of the greater prairie-chicken”) and typographic and grammatical slips; the jarring insertion of the account for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken between that for the Greater and that for the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken should also be corrected. I was disappointed, too, to see a vapid facebook aphorism misattributed to Audubon, an embarrassing lapse far beneath the dignity of this fine book.

“Anyone who studies grassland grouse falls in love.” Last Dance is an inspiration even to those of us who have never seen them to fall in love with these fascinating birds and to work for the protection of their habitats, lest a sad silent absence replace the vastness they have filled for so long.

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Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright studied French, German, philosophy, and biology at the University of Nebraska. Following a detour to Harvard Law School, he took the Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1990. He held appointments as Assistant Professor of German at the University of Illinois, Reader in Art and Archaeology at Princeton, and Associate Professor of Medieval Studies at Fordham. Rick was a department editor at Birding from 2004 to 2008 and editor of Winging It from 2005 to 2007. He leads birding and birds-and-art tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and lives in northern New Jersey with his wife, Alison Beringer, and their chocolate lab, Gellert.
Rick Wright

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  • I had wondered about that “Audubon” quote, but am not surprised at all if you immediately knew it was a misattribution.

    I can’t believe how beautiful this book and all the photographs were. And the conservation message makes it even better.

    I hope you don’t mind if I mention the book’s website. One can order it from there, or through Buteo Books (though they’re sold out currently). A portion of each purchase is donated to a grouse conservation organization.

    I really hope this book finds its way into the hands of many birders and grassland residents, and that it makes a difference for these birds.

  • Thanks, Grant; I should have mentioned the website.

    I don’t think anybody knows the actual origin of that little ditty, but given its use of a word not attested until some 40 years after Audubon’s death, and given Audubon’s notoriously clunky and long-winded English, and given its complete absence from Audubon’s published writings, I think we’re safe in believing that it’s more likely Jack Handey than Jacques Audubon. Some years ago I was asked to give a series of lectures about Audubon, and the sponsoring organization used the aphorism in its publicity: not for long, believe me.

  • Karl

    Okay, so now I want to see/hear them live, rather than read about them in a book. Where should I go? Best I can tell, from the article, is three or four or five hours west of south east Nebraska.

  • Am I allowed to advertise here? Prob’ly not.
    For Greater Prairie-Chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse, I’d suggest the Nebraska Sandhills.
    For Lesser, BLM land near Roswell, New Mexico.
    For Gunnison Sage-Grouse, Gunnison, Colorado (be sure to find out in a very, very timely way about making blind reservations).
    For Greater Sage-Grouse, Seedskadee, Wyoming, or Malta, Montana, or North Park, Colorado.
    A Colorado “chicken tour” (on your own or with a tour company) will give you all of those species plus Dusky Grouse and White-tailed Ptarmigan.
    if you have any specific questions, just drop me an e-.

  • Sorry, Karl; I responded in the wrong area on the “page.” My answer is in the next comment below.

  • Karl, as Rick mentioned, doing a Colorado “chicken tour” is very doable, even on your own. I did one in 2007 and it’s still probably the best birding trip I’ve ever done. I was fortunate enough to get all of the grouse in about a week. If you want details, here’s a trip report. But since it was a little while ago, you’d want to make sure to get more timely intel. (For instance, I didn’t have to get a blind reservation for the Gunnison, I was able to park my car on the side of the road and see them from it (with the engine off, of course). But I don’t know if that’s allowable anymore.)

  • Karl

    Grant and Rick,

    Thank you both for the information. I have added a dozen bookmarks and am already seeing this as a feasible endeavor for this coming spring.


  • Hope you’re still planning on an expedition to the Great Plains this spring!

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