Greater Prairie-Chicken

Tympanuchus cupido

(c) National Audubon
  • TETRAONIDAE
  • Galliformes
  • Gallo de las Praderas Mayor
  • Tétras des prairies
Introduction

In a traditional Crow legend, Old Man Coyote made the prairie-chicken to show the other animals how to dance. Before European colonization, the Greater Prairie-Chicken danced every spring in small groups, called leks, from the Atlantic coast to the foot of the Rocky Mountains. A relative of the grouse, the Greater Prairie-Chicken is a grassland specialist.

Appearance Description

All three subspecies of Greater Prairie-Chicken, are round, stocky ground-dwelling birds with uniformly barred plumage and rounded tails. Male birds in courtship display are impressive with inflated orange pouches of skin on either side of their necks. Almost identical to the Lesser Prairie-Chicken in plumage, breeding males also have bright yellow eye-combs and specialized feathers on the back of their necks that are raised during displays. Females are similarly barred, but lack the distinctive skin patches and neck feathers. Weighing about 2 pounds, this species measures 17 inches long with a 28 inch wingspan.

Range Distribution

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.

Habitat

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.

Feeding

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.

Reproduction

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.

Migration

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.

  • 690,000
  • 690,000
Population Status Trends

Historically, the Greater Prairie-Chicken was common across most of its range. Its population shrank dramatically in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, and it virtually disappeared east of the Mississippi. State-by-state lek surveys suggest that this species is declining in all states except Colorado, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. From a population of millions of individuals, the numbers of the Attwater's Greater Prairie-Chicken crashed to just under 50 wild individuals in the 2003.

Despite these declines, Greater Prairie-Chicken populations are still considered healthy enough to be hunted in 4 states: Colorado, Minnesota, Kansas (western population), and Nebraska (western population).

Conservation Issues

In the 19th Century, the Greater Prairie-Chicken declined because of heavy market-hunting pressure and the loss of habitat. Prairies were once the largest vegetated habitat in North America, covering an estimated 580,000 square miles. Since 1830, North American states and provinces have lost between 82% and 99.9% of their tall grass prairies. In Iowa, where the Greater Prairie-Chicken was extirpated in 1952, a bare 0.1% of the tall grass prairie remains. Illinois, Indiana, and Manitoba have similar statistics for birds and habitat. In 2004, BirdLife, acting on behalf of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), listed this prairie grouse as Vulnerable. The successful conservation of the Greater Prairie-Chicken must enlist the help of concerned citizens, hunters, and private landowners who control the vast majority of North American grasslands.

Currently, the threats to this species are harmful grazing practices (timing and intensity), invasive plant species like cheatgrass and fescue, invasive animal species like Ring-necked Pheasants, a shrinking genetic pool (inbreeding), expanding and more intensive agriculture, more frequent and severe drought, the spread of brush and trees into grasslands, and alteration of natural fire regimes. Conservation efforts aimed at these problems include prescribed burning, prairie restoration and rehabilitation through seeding, land purchases, habitat preservation through the U. S. Conservation Reserve Program, managed grazing, and intense reintroduction programs. These efforts have had modest results in Iowa, where the number of booming grounds (leks) was 9 in 2003, with a total of 32 displaying males, as the result of a reintroduction program. In Colorado, the Greater Prairie-Chicken was moved from the Endangered to the Threatened List in 1993 and was de-listed in 1998. In 2006, Colorado issued 100 permits for hunting this species on private lands only.

What You Can Do

Look for the Greater Prairie-Chicken at the Attwater's Prairie Chicken Festival, held annually in the second week of April at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge near Sealy, Texas. Activities include a tour of the booming grounds.

If you own or use grassland, consider managing it for the Greater Prairie-Chicken. The Conservation Reserve Program can help defray the costs.
 
Support the Adopt-a-Prairie-Chicken program in Texas, where every dollar is spent on reintroduction and conservation. See the Texas Parks and Wildlife brochure for more information. 

Listing of the Attwater's Greater Prairie-Chicken under the Endangered Species Act has made it possible to learn critical information about the biology of the species. Audubon continues to work to ensure that this vital legislation is being used to protect our publicly-owned wildlife resources. Learn  the latest news about the Endangered Species Act and how you can help.

Find out about actions you can take including Audubon programs and activities.

More Information

See the National Geograhic web site for a lesson plan on the Greater Prairie-Chicken aimed at grades 3-5, with instructions for a native-style dance.

Learn more about this species and other birds through these resources

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Natural History References

Robb, L.A. and M.A. Schroeder. Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido): a technical conservation assessment. 2005, April 15. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region. Accessed 12 June 2007. 

Rumble, M. A. , J. A. Newell, and J. E. Toepfer. "Diets of Greater Prairie-Chickens on the Sheyenne National Grasslands, North Dakota." Prairie chickens on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. A. J. Bjugstad, Ed. 1998. Department of Agriculture, U. S. Forest Service, General Techincial Report: RM––159, pages 49-54. Accessed 12 June 2007.

Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Svedarsky, W. D., J. E. Toepfer, R. L. Westemeier, and R. J. Robel. 2003. "Effects of management practices on grassland birds: Greater Prairie-Chicken." Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, North Dakota. 42 pages. Accessed 13 June 2007.

Conservation Status References

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, and J. Fallon. 2005. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 - 2005. Version 6.2.2006. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD. Accessed 12 June 2007.

"Greater Prairie-Chicken." Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife, 29 May 2007. Accessed 12 June 2007.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "Greater Prairie-Chicken Restoration." Trends in Iowa Wildlife Populations and Harvest - 2002. Iowa Department of Natural Resources - Wildlife Bureau, Des Moines, Iowa: 2003. pages 123-134.

Robb, L.A. and M.A. Schroeder. Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido): a technical conservation assessment. 2005, April 15. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region. Accessed 12 June 2007. 

"Tall Grass Prairie," Regional Trends of Biological Resources – Grasslands. Northern Prairie Wildlife Resource Center, United States Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior, 3 August 2006. Accessed 12 June 2007.