The Greater Prairie-Chicken once occupied large sections of the U.S. and Canada where prairie habitat and mixed oak forests were prevalent. The Heath Hen (T. c. cupido), an eastern subspecies, occupied the Mid-Atlantic coast up to southern New England, but became extinct in 1932. Attwater's Prairie-Chicken (T. c. attwateri), another subspecies, can only be found in two locations in southeastern Texas. A third subspecies (T. c. pinnatus) continues to be the most widely distributed of the three. It occupies a patchwork of ranges in 10 prairie states. Despite reintroduction projects, it is considered extirpated from Canada, the Eastern United States, and 7 Midwestern states.
Created by low average rainfall, natural fire, and grazing animals like bison, medium and tall grasslands historically supported species like the Greater Prairie-Chicken. It bred where prairies mixed with oak woodland or approached the coast. Today, the majority of Greater Prairie Chickens are confined to western tall grass prairies. Roosts form in thicker stands of grass like reed canary grass and little blue stem, but open ground on a short rise or hill is needed for courtship displays. Brooding hens use heavy cover with plants like needle grass, sedge, sweet clover, and western wheat grass. Some 19th Century farmlands provided good habitat year round, with a mixture of remnant prairie, hayfields, grain fields, and pasture.
The diet of the Greater Prairie-Chicken varies with the season and the location, but always includes seeds and plant parts. Fall and winter diets depend on grass seeds, waste grain (corn, sunflower, sorghum, and soybean), and fringed sage. Dandelion and clover become more important in late Spring. Many insects (grasshoppers, beetles, flies, moths, and spiders) are consumed in summer and are the staple for young prairie-chickens. In the morning and the evening, most foraging occurs on the ground, but this prairie grouse will take buds from trees like aspen and birch.
Like the Wild Turkey, a close relative, the Greater Prairie-Chicken is famous for its impressive courtship behavior, in which as many as 20 adult males congregate in leks or "booming grounds" to display. Each male will defend a territory in the lek, with dominant males maintaining larger and more centrally located spots. A displaying male will lean forward and spread its wings slightly, while raising its tail and the specialized feathers located on the back of its neck. Colorful skin pouches located on the side of the neck are inflated and bright eye-combs are enlarged as these birds give their characteristic booming vocalization and stamp their feet. Typically, females attending a lek will only mate with a limited number of dominant males. Beginning in mid-April, nesting is the responsibility of the female. Among thick grasses or sedges, the hen presses a bowl-shaped depression into the soil and lines it with leaves, grass and down. She incubates 8-12 pale yellow to yellowish-green eggs for about two weeks. Once dry, the downy chicks can walk, hide, and soon feed themselves. A dark camouflage pattern over their yellow down makes them hard to spot. Chicks develop quickly and can make short flights in about 14 days, but the brood usually stays together for 11-12 weeks before disbanding. Young Greater Prairie Chickens breed in the spring following their hatching. In some populations, Ring-necked Pheasants, introduced for hunting, lay eggs in prairie chicken nests, severely limiting reproductive success.
The Greater Prairie-Chicken is not a traditional migrant, and many individuals remain near the breeding grounds throughout the year. Movements can occur as early as June, when females fail to breed or lose nests to predators. Most "migrant" prairie chickens depart summering grounds in October and travel between 7 and 100 miles. The reasons for these movements are unclear, because adequate food supplies, shelter, and good weather do not stop them. Females are the most likely to evacuate the breeding grounds.