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Lesser Prairie-Chicken Life History

Habitat

Habitat Grasslands

Lesser Prairie-Chickens inhabit shortgrass prairies of the southern Great Plains, especially areas where shinnery oak, sand sagebrush, and bluestem grasses (such as little bluestem and sand bluestem) predominate. Other grasses of this environment include side oats grama, blue grama, sand dropseed, and three-awn. This habitat has largely disappeared or become fragmented in the 5 states where this species persists (Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas). The Lesser Prairie-Chicken’s display grounds (“leks”) within this habitat tend to be in spots with very little vegetation, usually on prominent ridges or similar landscape features. Females nest and raise their young not far from the leks, in areas with dense cover, especially taller copses of shinnery oak with chickasaw plum, fragrant sumac, and sand sagebrush. These habitats are usually rich in insects that the young birds eat. In late fall and winter, Lesser Prairie-Chickens often forage in farm fields and seek shelter in shinnery oak as well as in stream corridors with willow trees.

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Food

Food Insects

Lesser Prairie-Chickens eat leaves, seeds, buds, catkins, fruits, acorns, wild buckwheat, cultivated grains such as sunflower, soy, and sorghum, insect galls, and insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, and beetles. They peck the ground and glean insects much like a domestic chicken, walking slowly through the habitat to search for food visually. They forage most actively in early morning and late afternoon, mostly on the ground but sometimes in trees, especially when snow cover is heavy. Developing chicks and juveniles consume mostly insects, especially short-horned grasshoppers, long-horned grasshoppers, treehoppers, and beetles.

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Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest Ground

Females usually make their nests in shinnery oak copses (called “mottes”) in grasslands of sand sagebrush or bunchgrass. These sites are usually richer than the surrounding prairie in flowering plants and taller vegetation.

Nest Description

Females dig scrapes in the soil, then line them with grasses, leaves, and feathers. These nests average about 7.9 inches across, with the interior about 7 inches across and 3.5 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Egg Description:

Whitish to ivory yellow, speckled with pale brown, lavender, or olive.

Condition at Hatching:

Downy young, able leave nest shortly after hatching.

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Behavior

Behavior Ground Forager

In early spring, male Lesser Prairie-Chickens gather before sunrise into small display areas often called leks, dancing grounds, or booming grounds. Here, males defend small territories only a little bigger than the birds themselves. The males perform complex “booming” displays while facing each other in a crouched posture. The many elements of these displays include: extending the yellow-orange eye combs, raising long neck feathers, pointing the tail upward, stamping their feet, clicking and fanning the tail feathers, and shaking and lowering the wings. They also expand bright rose-red air sacs in the neck and produce vocalizations called booming or yodeling. These are higher in pitch than calls of the Greater Prairie-Chicken. Males clash relentlessly at these gatherings, chasing each other, leaping into the air and sometimes striking with wings, feet, and bills. Disputes usually end in ritualized stand-offs that minimize contact. When females arrive at the lek, males display and fight with much more vigor. Males often bow to females and then perform "flutter jumps"—leaping into the air with a short burst of flapping, often in combination with a loud cackling. Females may visit several leks in a season before mating. They often assert dominance over other females, raising their tail and pinnae (neck feathers) and drooping the wings when other females approach too closely. In the lek mating system, females accept only a few males, usually one or two experienced older males, for mating. Other males simply do not mate. No pair bond is formed in this polygynous mating system, and males have no role in selecting nest sites or rearing young. After the breeding season, grouse gather in flocks in autumn. In the spring, year-old males may investigate several leks before selecting one for display.

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Conservation

Conservation Red Watch List

Lesser Prairie-Chickens are gravely in need of conservation. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 28,000 and rates the species a 19 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, placing the species on the Red Watch List. The Lesser Prairie-Chicken has lost an estimated 97% of its historical numbers, largely because of the destruction, modification, and overgrazing of its native prairie habitat. Lesser Prairie-Chicken was listed by the federal government as a Threatened species in March 2014, making hunting the birds illegal (limited hunting had previously been allowed in Kansas and Texas). However, a change in administrations in the U.S. government led to the annulment of this listing in July 2016, and hunting of this extremely scarce species is once again permitted by law. Some attempts to improve grassland habitat have been successful, including efforts to increase native plant cover, and to use prescribed burning to create additional lek sites or to improve plant cover and insect numbers in nesting habitat. The Conservation Reserve Program has helped to encourage the conversion of cropland to grassland.

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Credits

Hagen, Christian A. and Kenneth M. Giesen. (2005). Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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.

Jones, R. (1964). The specific distinctness of the Greater and Lesser Prairie Chicken. Auk. 81(1): 65–73.

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

Patten, M. A., D. H. Wolfe, E. Shochat and S. K. Sherrod. (2005). Habitat fragmentation, rapid evolution, and population persistence. Evolutionary Ecology 7 (2):235-249.

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

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