Merlin

Greater Prairie-Chicken Life History

Habitat

Habitat Grasslands

Greater Prairie-Chickens largely live in areas that combine small patches of oak woodland and extensive prairie. Most now inhabit mixed-grass and tallgrass prairie (rather than shortgrass prairie) with relatively few trees and with patches of cropland interspersed. For nesting, patches of dense brush are critical, as they provide protection from predators and the elements, while more open areas, with a greater abundance of insects, are necessary for hens foraging with their chicks. Males display on open, elevated, flat areas, in part so that prairie-chickens can detect predators both on the ground and in the air. During the winter, prairie-chickens occupy much the same habitats but are often found near croplands that provide supplemental food; winter roost sites are mostly in brushy areas. Modern agriculture has reduced and fragmented these habitat types, leading to sharp declines in populations. South of the Great Plains, in the sandy Gulf coastal plain, oak savannas (now rare) were habitat for Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken. The extinct Heath Hen apparently favored scrub oak with openings created by fire or natural barrens.

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Food

Food Seeds

Greater Prairie-Chickens eat leaves, seeds, buds, fruits, acorns, cultivated grains such as corn, sunflower, soy, and sorghum, and insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, and beetles. Attwater’s Prairie-Chickens eat native plants but relatively little in the way of cultivated grains. Prairie-chickens forage mostly on the ground but may also climb into trees to eat buds and leaves, especially when snow limits access to food on the ground. Chicks eat mostly insects.

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Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest Ground

Females select the nest site in grassland with brushy cover, usually with vegetation 10–28 inches high.

Nest Description

The nest is a bowl-shaped depression lined with feathers, dried grass, leaves, and small twigs, averaging about 7 inches wide and 2.8 inches deep.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:5-17 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:1.6-1.7 in (4.1-4.4 cm)
Egg Width:1.2-1.3 in (3.1-3.2 cm)
Incubation Period:23-25 days
Condition at Hatching:

Downy and able to follow mother.

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Behavior

Behavior Ground Forager

Prairie-chickens walk slowly through habitats, pecking at seeds and grains on the ground and gleaning insects. To obtain buds and fruits, they occasionally feed in trees. They are strong fliers and frequently make flights of several miles between roosting and feeding areas. In early spring, often with snow still on the ground, males begin to assemble on small areas called leks, dancing grounds, or booming grounds. Here, in what is known as a lek mating system, males defend small territories and together perform their spectacularly odd “booming” displays: extending their orange eye combs, lowering the head, raising two tufts of feathers on the neck, and pointing the tail slightly forward. They then stamp their feet on the ground, clicking their tails, shaking and lowering wings until they touch the ground. They expanding bright orange air sacs in the neck (reminiscent of a frog inflating its throat) to produce a booming vocalization. Males clash relentlessly at these gatherings, chasing each other, leaping into the air and striking with wings, feet, and bills, but they also have ritualized standoffs that minimize bloodshed. When females arrive at the lek to observe males, the dancing goes into high gear. Males sometimes bow to nearby females and may perform “flutter jumps”—leaping into the air while flapping their wings, often in combination with whoops, cackles, or whines. Females sometimes make similar jumps. They occasionally warn off other females by raising their tail and pinnae (feather tufts) and drooping the wings. In the lek system, only a few males, mostly experienced older males, are accepted by females for mating. Those with the largest eye combs, longest legs, and best territories (nearest the center of the booming ground) appear to have the best breeding success. No pair bond is formed, and males have no role in selecting nest sites or rearing young. After the breeding season, grouse gather in flocks in autumn.

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Conservation

Conservation Declining

Greater Prairie-Chicken numbers declined severely in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but they have been stable during the period 1966 to 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 360,000 and rates the species a 16 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, placing it on the Red Watch List. It is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The Greater Prairie-Chicken has an unusual status as a species of high conservation concern, but one that is also legally hunted. Heath Hen, the distinctive form endemic in the East, became extinct in 1932. The distinctive Attwater's Prairie-Chicken, formerly abundant in the coastal Plain of western Gulf states, is now federally listed as Endangered and at severe risk of extinction, limited to three small sites in Texas. Greater Prairie-Chickens are vulnerable to loss and fragmentation of prairie habitat through conversion to cropland and other uses such as wind energy development. Cows also modify its prairie habitat. Competition with the introduced Ring-necked Pheasant is likewise a concern for this species. Hunting of the species continues in South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Colorado, and studies confirm these hunted populations have lower overall survival rates than elsewhere. In the 1980s and 1990s, agricultural lands planted with grasses and forbs under the Conservation Reserve Program helped populations, increasing both nesting and brood-rearing habitat, especially when these plantings occurred near native grasslands.

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Credits

Johnson, J. A. 2008. Recent range expansion and divergence among North American prairie grouse. Journal of Heredity 99 (2):165-173. doi:10.1093/jhered/esn002.

Johnson, Jeff A., Michael A. Schroeder and Leslie A. Robb. (2011). Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. (2014). The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center (2014b). Available from http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

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