Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Tympanuchus pallidicinctus

(c) Marcus Miller, NRCS, US Department of Agriculture
  • TETRAONIDAE
  • Galliformes
  • Gallo de las Praderas Menor
  • Tétras pâle
Introduction

Once hunted as a commercial gamebird for upscale restaurants and railroad workers, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken has been a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act since 1995. Despite its dwindling numbers, or perhaps because of them, thousands of bird watchers and amateur naturalists visit this grassland grouse every spring, when males gather to perform energetic dances and booming songs.

Bird Sounds
Lang Elliot
Appearance Description

Lesser Prairie-Chickens are round, stocky ground dwelling birds with uniformly barred plumage and rounded tails. On average, they weigh 1.6 pounds and measure 16 inches long with a 25 inch wingspan. Males are famous for their courtship displays during which they inflate reddish pouches of skin on the side of their necks. Breeding males also have bright yellow patches of skin above each eye (eye-combs), and can raise specialized feathers on the back of their necks that are sometimes described as "rabbit ears." Females are similarly barred, but lack the distinctive skin patches and neck feathers. This species is very similar in appearance to its close cousin the Greater Prairie-Chicken, but the ranges of these two species no longer overlap.

Range Distribution

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.

Habitat

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.

Feeding

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.

Reproduction

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.

Migration

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.

  • 32,000
  • 32,000
Population Status Trends

Since the early 1800's, its population has declined an estimated 97%. The total population was estimated at 60,000 individuals in the early 1970's, 42,500-55,000 in 1979, 10,000-25,000 in 1999. This recent trend may be tied to more frequent drought and echoes severe declines in Lesser Prairie-Chickens during the Dust Bowl (1933-1941), when it came close to extinction.

In 2006, significant declines were still being recorded in Texas and New Mexico. A study published in June 2007 by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) estimated that the extinction of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken in Texas is very likely by 2027 and possible by 2017.

Conservation Issues

In the 19th Century, unregulated harvesting and the conversion of prairie lands to agriculture probably caused the decline of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken (LPC). Today, this species is vulnerable because of its limited range, small population size, and its dependence on shrinking sand sagebrush and shinnery oak grasslands. Intense and ill-timed grazing, fire suppression, oil contamination in Texas, the spread of scrub into native grassland, drought, invasive grasses, and new construction are major problems for this species. The five U.S. states containing the global population of LPC have worked together to develop a management plan. One result of their work was the formation of the High Plains Partnership for Species at Risk, which was tasked with creating voluntary grassland restoration projects on private lands. The U.S. Conservation Reserve and the Landowner Incentive Programs have been useful tools in recruiting private citizens to the conservation effort. Without the voluntary help of private landowners, who control the vast majority of acres on which LPC live, its future is dim.

As of 2007, Colorado, Oklahoma, and New Mexico have listed the species as needing special conservation consideration. Texas and Kansas, on the other hand, still allow hunting. Recent studies in the Texas panhandle indicate a lack of reproductive success (Lyons 2007) and may mean that continued hunting will soon be untenable.

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken is a candidate species for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Despite the species' continuing decline, the elevation of the species to Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (Red List 2000), the almost complete failure to reintroduce this species to its former habitat, and legal action brought by environmental groups, the response by the federal agencies has been 12 years of postponement and inaction.

What You Can Do

While respecting its space, look for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken in the Spring. At the Comanche National grassland near Campo, Colorado, the U. S. Forest Service provides an observation blind that may be used under supervision and with reservations.

If you own or use grassland, consider managing it for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. The Conservation Reserve Program ensures that we all bear the cost of this effort.

Count Lesser Prairie-Chickens. New Mexico and Texas ask their citizens, especially the private landowners, to report sightings of this prairie grouse. New Mexico has a fact sheet with contact numbers and Texas circulates a "WANTED" poster .

Petition the U. S. government to list the Lesser Prairie-Chicken under the Endangered Species Act and to lead the effort on prairie restoration. Audubon continues to work to ensure that this vital legislation is being used to protect our publicly-owned wildlife resources. Learn of the latest news about the Endangered Species Act and how you can help. 

Find out about actions you can take to help birds, including Audubon programs and activities.

More Information

Learn more about this species and other birds through these resources

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Natural History References

Hagan, C. A. and Kenneth M. Giesen (2005). Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus). The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole Ed..). Ithaca: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Accessed 13 June 2007.

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

Conservation Status References

BirdLife International (2007) "Species factsheet: Tympanuchus pallidicinctus." Compiled by Phil Benstead and Aiden Keane. Accessed 13 June 2007.

Hagan, C. A. and Kenneth M. Giesen (2005). Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus). The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Accessed 13 June 2007.

Lyons, Eddie et al. "Evaluation of the Status of Lesser Prairie Chickens in Texas." Wildlife Research and Highlights 2007. June 2007. Jon Purvis, Editor. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Page 37. Accessed 12 June 2007.

Massey, Michael. "Long-range Plan For The Management of Lesser Prairie Chickens in New Mexico 2002-2006." July 2001. Division of Wildlife, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. 47 pages.