About the Bird
Lesser prairie-chickens are unique upland birds. Win-win, voluntary conservation is helping these birds rebound in the Southern Great Plains.
Species Name (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus): Tympanuchus means “drum” and “neck”, referring to males’ courtship dance where they stomp their feet to create a drumroll and inflate bright red air sacs on their necks to create a booming/popping sound. Pallidicinctus refers to the bird’s pale, banded plummage.
Habitat: Treeless, wide-open prairies in the Southern Great Plains where there’s a mix of short and tall grasses and shrubs. The biggest threat to lesser prairie-chickens is habitat loss and fragmentation.
Food: Insects, seeds, leaves, buds, and sometimes cultivated crops. While they get all the water they need from their food, prairie chickens will drink water when it’s available.
Appearance: Light brown, barred birds that blend in perfectly with the prairie. Males also have yellow-orange “eye combs”. They weigh 1-2 pounds, measuring 15-16 inches from tip to tail.
Greater, Lesser, and ‘Guesser’: The lesser prairie-chicken is lighter and smaller than the greater prairie-chicken. In western Kansas where the two species overlap, researchers nicknamed the hybridized offspring the guesser prairie-chicken.
Relatives: A third species of prairie chicken called heath hens used to be abundant in shrublands—and a staple on dinner plates—from Maine to the Carolinas. But they went extinct in 1932. A sub-species of the heath hen, Attwater’s prairie-chicken, still lives along the coast of Texas, though fewer than 100 of these birds remain.
home on the range
Life Cycle of Lesser Prairie-Chickens
Life can be challenging for critters on the prairie. Although their life expectancy is about five years, two-thirds of lesser prairie-chickens don’t survive their first year.
Chicks and hens are especially vulnerable to predators during breeding season. Plus, adult birds are a tasty treat for a wide range of animals year-round, including coyotes, bobcats, hawks, owls, raccoons, and foxes. Lesser prairie-chickens are also killed by collisions with tractors, cars, power lines or fences.
Prairie chickens that survive follow the seasonal cycle described below:
From late February through April, lesser prairie-chickens gather at dawn on their annual mating grounds. Called ‘leks’, these places have sparser, shorter vegetation and are slightly elevated—a perfect stage for males to put on a show for females!
Lesser prairie-chickens usually seek out the same lek sites each year, but they will occasionally create new leks when a population is expanding.
To attract a female, males erect long feathers behind their head, fan their tails, and stomp their feet rapidly. Shaking and lowering their wings, males will compete with each other—they leap, lunge and spar.
Males will often bow to females then perform a “flutter jump” while cackling loudly. They also inflate red air sacs on their necks to make burbling, popping sounds. This is why leks are called “booming” or “gobbling” grounds.
Females may visit several leks before deciding on a mate. The majority of females choose only 2-3 of the older, experienced males, which means most younger males do not mate.
Prairie chickens do not form a pair bond, and males have no role in raising the young.
After mating, hens choose a nest site a mile or two from the lek. Females prefer nesting in areas with tall bunchgrasses or shrubs that provide good hiding cover. They avoid tall structures, such as trees or telephone poles, where predators like ravens or hawks could perch.
Hens will lay 11-14 eggs about two weeks after mating, then incubate the eggs for 25 days. Lesser prairie-chicken chicks hatch between late May through mid June.
Summer brings lush grasses and blooming flowers to the Southern Great Plains. These plants attract grasshoppers, leaf hoppers, caterpillars, beetles, and other bugs—which birds of all species feast upon.
Once chicks hatch, hens take their broods to search for insects. Hungry lesser prairie-chicken chicks need plenty of protein to grow, especially during the first 10ten weeks of life. Adults also eat insects during the summer, along with seeds, leaves and buds.
Chicks usually remain with their mother until mid-August. This is a dangerous time for vulnerable hens their broods—only about half of females and one-third of chicks survive the summer.
Come autumn, chicks venture out on their own. Prairie chickens of all ages begin to gather in flocks, which they’ll stay in until the following spring.
As summer’s bounty dwindles, lesser prairie-chickens range farther in search of food and diversify their diet. The birds switch to a diet of seeds and nuts, and may visit crop fields for grain, too.
Most birds don’t travel far during their lives, staying within a few miles of the lek where they mate (or were born). Ensuring lesser prairie-chickens have healthy, diverse prairie plants for nesting and brood-rearing habitat is the linchpin for the species’ survival.
Like other grouse, lesser prairie-chickens tunnel beneath the snow to stay warm during the harsh winters. They scoop out burrows and leave a hole at the top for ventilation.
Greater prairie-chickens, the lesser’s larger cousin to the north, have been seen diving into snow banks to escape the howling prairie wind.
Radio-collar studies show that winter has the lowest mortality rates for lesser prairie-chickens. So the coldest months may actually be the safest time of year for these upland birds!
home on the range
Lesser Prairie-Chickens Habitats
Lesser prairie-chickens and other prairie wildlife need large chunks of continuous habitat. They suffer when the landscape is fragmented by roads, trees, crop fields, or buildings.
Prairie chickens also require different types of vegetation at different times of year. They thrive in habitat that includes a mosaic of short and tall grasses, and in places where both sparse and dense vegetation are nearby.
This varied mosaic is created by the dynamic duo of fire and grazing. Before European settlement, grasslands burned every 5 to 20 years, and huge herds of bison, pronghorn, elk and deer grazed the Great Plains. Today, landowners are reinstating fire and grazing strategically to maintain healthy grasslands.
Learn about the habitat types that support lesser prairie-chickens below:
Short Grass / Mosaic
Located in eastern New Mexico-southwest Texas Panhandle, this region is dominated by Shinnery oak (Quercus havardii) a species of oak that grows just 1-2 feet high. It prefers deep sand, and has an extensive underground stem and root system that allows it to withstand periodic fire and drought.
Many grasses and forbs (broad-leafed herbaceous plants) are part of the shinnery oak prairie, including sand bluestem, little bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass, buffalograss, sand dropseed, and sand sagebrush.
In addition to lesser prairie-chickens,S this habitat supports many other wildlife species including: black-tailed jackrabbits, collared peccaries, northern bobwhites, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, desert cottontails, eastern cottontails, wild turkeys, scaled quail, southern plains woodrats, western box turtles, 25 snake species, and 10 lizard species.
Located in southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, and the western Oklahoma Panhandle, this region is dominated by sand sagebrush (Artemisia filifolia). The prairie here also contains grasses like sand bluestem, grama grasses, sand reedgrass, little bluestem, and sand dropseed, as well as many wildflowers.
Like shinnery oak, sand sagebrush tolerates fire, sprouting vigorously after burning. Resident wildlife species include kangaroo rat, plains pocket mouse, grasshopper mouse, western rattlesnake, western hognose snake, lesser prairie-chicken, Cassin’s sparrow, and ornate box turtle, among many others.
Located in the northeast Texas panhandle, western Oklahoma, and south-central Kansas, this vegetative community is a mix of tallgrasses (primarily big bluestem and Indiangrass) mid-grasses (primarily little bluestem, western wheatgrass, sideoats grama, and Junegrass) and short grasses (primarily blue grama and buffalograss).
Plant species diversity is moderate to high in the mixed grass prairie, with many brightly flowered forb species, including fringed sage, prairie coneflower, scarlet globe mallow, scarlet gaura, and prairie sunflower.
Short Grass / Mosaic
Located in northwestern Kansas, this habitat includes both native shortgrass prairie and grasslands created through the USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which offers financial and technical support to agricultural producers who take marginal cropland out of production and plant it back into grassland.
Through CRP grassland restoration, lesser prairie-chickens have returned to parts of their historical range, as well as to new areas they were not known to previously inhabit. CRP grasslands increase the connectivity of prairie habitats, which helps lesser prairie-chicken populations respond to drought and other stressors.