The full, historic distribution of this species is not well understood because of its confusion with the Greater Prairie-Chicken in the 19th Century. From 1963 to 1980, the distribution of this species in the 5 states it inhabits declined by 78% to about 10,500 square miles, representing an estimated 8% of its historic range. The remaining birds are found in fragmented pockets of habitat scattered across Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. More than 70% of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken's range in 2007 was owned privately.
This species prefers sand sagebrush-bluestem and shinnery oak-bluestem grasslands found on sandy soils of the southern Great Plains. Dominant plants across the range include perennial grass like blue grama, little bluestem, sand bluestem, sand dropseed , side oats grama, and three-awn. Oak-grasslands support larger populations than sagebrush habitats, which have been used with the reduction of prairie. Adjacent small grain fields appear to enhance reproductive success. Resting birds escape the sun under plum trees, shinnery oak, sagebrush, and sumac. Leks are generally situated in an elevated spot that is relatively clear of vegetation. Wintering habitats are similar to summering ones, but may also include streams with grasses and small trees, like the willow.
The diet of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken varies with the season and location, but always includes seeds and plant parts. Foraging occurs on the ground, mostly in the morning and the evening, either singly or in small flocks. Fall and winter diets consist mostly of shinnery oak acorns, leaves, catkins, and wild buckwheat. Waste grain is important for some populations. Leaves and flowers become more important in late spring. Many insects (short and long horned grasshoppers, beetles, flies, moths, and spiders) are consumed in summer and small insects like leafhoppers are the staple for young chicks. Grit is swallowed in order to grind food in the gizzard.
Like some other North American grouse species, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken is known for its impressive courtship behavior. From March into May, adult males will congregate in an open area, called a lek, to display. Leks are generally situated in an elevated spot that is relatively clear of vegetation. Each male will defend a territory in the lek, and some have been shown to maintain the same territory for several years. A displaying male will lean forward and spread its wings slightly while raising its tail and special feathers located on the back of the neck. Colorful skin pouches located on the side of the neck are inflated and golden 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. In April, females create a bowl-shaped depression in the soil for a nest, and line it with leaves, grass and down. For about 25 days, 10-12 cream-colored and sometimes speckled eggs are incubated by the female. The downy chicks leave the nest shortly after hatching (usually within 24hrs), and are led to suitable foraging sites by the female. Mammals such as coyotes and badgers prey on adults, chicks and eggs. Nests are also raided by skunks, ground squirrels and snakes. Avian predators include Ferruginous Hawks, Golden Eagles, and Prairie Falcons. In response to attack, chicks hide or make short flights to escape.
Essentially, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken does not migrate. Short, seasonal movements of up to 8 miles may represent wandering juveniles or adults responding to food shortages. Typically, adults stay within 2 miles of the breeding grounds.