Monday, August 29, 2011

Vinyl Siding for Prairie Chickens

Monday, August 29, 2011
Did the title of this post make you wonder for a moment? I hope so. Sounds pretty weird, doesn't it? But it's true. Let me explain.

Out on the wide-open expanses of the Oklahoma prairie (and in a few nearby states) the lesser prairie chicken is holding onto its existence, barely. But the species' population is a fraction of what it once was. Prairie chickens were once so abundant that they fed pioneer families for entire seasons. Market hunters shot them until the hunters' arms were too sore to shoot anymore. And over the last two centuries, the species has decline significantly from hunting pressure, but more recently as a result of habitat loss and habitat alteration.

Native short-grass prairie is the specific habitat that the lesser prairie chicken prefers. Plow it up for wheat or soybeans or any other crop and the chickens have to go elsewhere. When trees naturally seed and grow up tall enough to cast a shadow, the chickens, feeling the trees might be ideal for a perching or hiding predator, go elsewhere. Plop down an oil derrick or a line of wind turbines—same result: move along LPCs.

All of these factors have contributed to the decline of this very special prairie species. But lurking just above ground level was another culprit in the lesser prairie chicken's decimation: barbed wire. Researchers in the field had discovered what farm hands and ranchers had known for a long time: prairie chickens often fly just above ground level, and because they often fly in to lekking grounds well before daylight, this flying style made them especially prone to colliding with barbed wire fence. The fence is essentially invisible in low light: rusty wire against sere-brown grass.

That's where the vinyl siding comes in. Field researchers looking for a way to reduce fence-chicken collisions landed on a seemingly ingenious solution. Small, three-to-four-inch sections of vinyl siding, with its interlocking channels, snapped perfectly into place on strands of barbed wire. The white hunks of hard vinyl fluttered slightly in the prairie wind, but held fast to the wire. Unlike pieces of white flagging, the vinyl siding lasted through the intense hot and cold and high winds of the Oklahoma seasons. Best, though, they made the wire fence strands visible to flying lesser prairie chickens, even in low light conditions.

My reason for being in Oklahoma was to deliver a keynote talk to the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival in Woodward, Oklahoma. This festival offers the expected field trips to temporary viewing blinds set up adjacent to known display leks so attendees can see the chickens in action. Since the LPC was a life bird for me, I was excited to make the trip to Woodward. But the festival also offers something that I found to be even more meaningful—a chance to do something to actually help the lesser prairie chicken: by placing strips of vinyl siding on barbed wire fences in habitat adjacent to known lesser prairie chicken habitat.

One of the prairie chicken experts I got to meet in Oklahoma was Dr. Dwayne Elmore (above). He knew the location of most of the active LPC leks in the area.

We met a guy from the Oklahoma Department of Natural Resources who selected a section of fence for us to mark. He demonstrated how to mark the fence for the chickens, pointed to several large burlap sacks of cut-up vinyl siding, then pointed to a long stretch of as yet unmarked barbed-wire (locals call it "bobwire") fence.

We set to work.
The idea was to stagger the siding pieces every two feet or so on the top two strands of wire. This seems to be the most effective use of this collision deterrent, since it's right at the height at which LPCs do much of their flying at dawn and dusk.

Here's a piece of vinyl siding snapped into place. The channels in the siding are just the right size to snap down over a strand of wire, between the barbs/bobs.

As you can see, the white siding pieces present a visual image that's easy to notice.

After the fence was marked and we ran out of siding pieces, we felt a real sense of accomplishment. Here's hoping the fence-marking program results in greatly lower mortality from fence strikes, which could in turn mean more chickens dancing on the prairie.

I've got at least a couple more posts in mind about this wonderful part of the world and the great birds and people there. I'll try to get back for a BOTB visit to the big wide open of Oklahoma sometime soon.


On August 29, 2011 at 9:41 AM mkircus said...

What a simple solution. I hope we can find a similiar solution to prevent birds from being killed from the ever increasing windmill farms.

The hardest, but most rewarding job I've ever done as a Texas Master Naturalist was to spend a morning at the Attwater National Wildlife Refuge where I swung a heavy net to collect bugs for the birds.

This refuge was established t help the almost extinct Attwater Prairie chicken, which was the most abundant bird in Texas and Louisiana. There had been 11 nests the year that I helped feed them, but most of the grasshoppers are too big for the babies to eat, and they will starve, if left on their own. We collected the bugs into gallon bags. The bags were put into the refrigerator and then fed to the mother and chicks every two hours. I think our grou was only able to catch about 20 bags, so this is an enormous effort.

All the birds have radio transmitters, so the nests are located and tar paper fencing put around them to keep predators from finding the nests. Then, just before hatching, a large cage (6 X 8') is put over the nests and the feeding begun. They have to be fed two weeks before they can find enough food on their own.

On November 7, 2011 at 1:59 PM Ingrid said...

Bill, what an awesome project. I'm familiar with some of the efforts to remove barbed wire across ranch properties, for ungulate species like antelope. But I didn't know about this. I will definitely be mentioning this the next time the barbed wire topic comes up ... which is surprisingly often.

On September 27, 2012 at 12:15 PM Jackie Champion said...

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In addition to that, vinyl siding can be observed in a wide range of product quality realized in a substantial differences in thickness and lasting durability. Thickness can vary from .035" in cheaper grade siding products up to .052" in the highest grade products which vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Today, the thinnest vinyl siding commonly used is .040", and is known as "builder's grade". Vinyl product can vary in thickness even within one manufacturer up to .010" of thickness through varying product lines offered that range from basic to premium-grade products. Thicker vinyl products, usually realized in higher cost, are more rigid which can add to the aesthetic appeal and look of the installed, inherently flexible product and also add to durability and life expectancy. Thicker grades of vinyl siding may, according to some, exhibit more resistance to the most common complaint about vinyl siding – its tendency to crack in very cold weather when it is struck or bumped by a hard object while others feel that a thinner product may allow more 'flex before cracking' and is a subject of debate. However, at "This Old House" website, this assertion about thickness and crack resistance is disputed. They claim to know of test results that indicate chemical makeup has a greater influence on impact resistance than does thickness.
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On February 22, 2013 at 1:09 PM Drew Slinger said...

I love what you have here. I was just looking into vinyl siding in Edmonton and look what I found! Thanks for sharing.

On April 18, 2013 at 9:40 PM Sean Valjean said...

Wow that is a really novel way of going about that. I have a friend who has been working with vinyl siding calgary for years and I'll bet hat he has never once thought of doing that to keep chickens in.

On May 3, 2013 at 10:20 PM Gabe@Painting Vinyl Siding said...

That's a really interesting idea. Any updates on how effective it was?

On May 22, 2013 at 3:22 PM Tom Hardy said...

Well look at you! That is genius, I have some extra vinyl siding that I used for my home in Calgary.. I may use your idea if you are okay with that?

On May 22, 2013 at 6:28 PM Michelle Thornton said...

This is an interesting story. I had no idea that something like vinyl siding could have this side effect. We were going to get vinyl siding in Edmonton, but now I think we might opt out for something different. Thanks for posting and bringing this to my attention.

On July 11, 2013 at 5:52 PM Mia Hart said...

Thanks so much for the post. I am looking for a company that does vinyl siding in Calgary. Do you happen to have any recommendations? Please let me know, thanks.

On November 11, 2017 at 8:43 PM Jade Graham said...

I like it! But I also want to make some with less colour. And when I do, you'll be the first to know about it. :)
And... I could use some wordy inspiration. fence repair