NATURAL HISTORY

LESSER PRAIRIE CHICKEN } Tympanuchus pallidicinctus

FAMILY: Phasianidae  

DESCRIPTION: The lesser prairie chicken is a medium-sized, gray-brown grouse. It has barred plumage with alternating dark and white bands and a rounded tail. Males display bright yellow combs above their eyes and dull-red esophageal air sacs on the sides of their necks during courtship. Males also have tufts of elongated feathers (pinnae) on each side of their necks, which they hold erect during courtship displays. Females have shorter pinnaes.

HABITAT: Lesser prairie chickens occupy two primary ecosystem types: shinnery oak and sand sagebrush grasslands. These birds require large parcels of intact native grasslands and shrublands, often in excess of 20,000 acres.

RANGE: Currently the lesser prairie chicken is present in southeastern Colorado, the southwestern quarter of Kansas, and in limited areas in the panhandle and northwest counties of Oklahoma. The species also occurs in east-central New Mexico and in small areas in the northeastern and southwestern corners of the Texas Panhandle. Kansas hosts the largest population of lesser prairie chickens.

BREEDING: Male lesser prairie-chickens engage in a unique, communal breeding display each spring to attract females. In the spring, both male and female lesser prairie chickens congregate at breeding grounds called leks, where the males strut (“dance”), vocalize (“boom”), and physically confront other males to defend their territories and court females. The males' repertoire includes displaying their bright-yellow eye combs, inflating their red air sacs, “flutter-jumping,” cackling, and stomping their feet. The nesting season generally occurs between mid-April and May, with lesser prairie chickens showing high site fidelity. These birds prefer nesting sites with more than 20 percent cover and vegetation more than 9 inches tall. Nesting and brood-rearing habitat is usually within three kilometers of breeding display areas.

FEEDING: Lesser prairie chickens consume insects, leaves, buds and cultivated grains.

THREATS: This bird is in danger from a long list of threats, especially habitat loss and degradation from livestock grazing, agriculture, oil and gas extraction, herbicides, unnatural fire and fire suppression, and wind-energy production. It also experiences habitat fragmentation from fences and power lines and disturbances from mining and roads. Conversion of habitat to agriculture on private land is one of the most serious threats to this bird.

POPULATION TREND: The lesser prairie chicken population was estimated to be at 25,261 birds in 2016, down from an estimate of 29,162 birds in 2015. The lowest recent population estimate was made in 2013, when the population was fewer than 18,000 birds. 

Lesser prairie chicken photo by Kevin Rolle/Flickr