Greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido)

Synonyms: Tetrao cupido
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderGalliformes
FamilyTetraonidae
GenusTympanuchus (1)
SizeSize: 43 cm (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU A2bc+3bc) on the IUCN Red List 2004 (1). Three subspecies are recognised: the Attwater’s prairie hen (T. c. attwateri) and the greater prairie chicken (T. c. pinnatus) are classified as Vulnerable and the heath hen (T. c. cupido) as extinct on the IUCN Red List 2004 (1). The Attwater’s prairie hen (T. c. attwateri) is listed under Appendix I of CITES (3).

The greater prairie chicken is a stocky brown, strongly barred grouse with paler coloured stripes, most easily recognised by the male’s distinctive and impressive appearance during courtship display (2) (4). During the male’s display, prominent, elongated pinnae (adapted neck feathers) become erected over the head, and large yellow-orange air sacs in the neck and above the eye become inflated (2). Both sexes possess these prominent neck feathers (2) but they are longer in males (4). The sexes can also be distinguished by the short, square tail being dark brown in males, but barred brown and tan in females (4). Other features of this species include an obvious dark eye-stripe, pale throat (2), and legs that are feathered down to the toes (4). During the mating season, males make a loud “booming” noise that can be heard half a mile away, amplified by their inflated air sacs (5).

Found in scattered areas of southern Canada and the mid-western United States (6). The extinct heath hen (T. c. cupido) once ranged along the coastal zone of eastern U.S. but the last bird died in 1932, and the Attwater’s prairie hen (T. c. attwateri) is restricted to small areas of south-east Texas and (formerly) neighbouring southwest Louisiana (2) (7). The largest remaining populations of the greater prairie chicken (T. c. pinnatus) are in Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota (2).

Native prairie is preferred, but this bird has also had to adapt to cropland as natural habitats became converted to agricultural land (2). Grassy habitats such as un-grazed meadows, with tall grass sturdy enough to withstand strong winds and heavy precipitation, are required for roosting and nesting (2) (4). Courtship, by contrast, occurs on open knolls with short grass, usually on elevated ground where males can easily display to females (2) (4).

Greater prairie chickens spend their entire lives within a relatively small area of several hundred acres where all their needs of food, cover and water are met, flying several miles between food and cover sites if necessary (4). Feeding usually occurs in the early morning and late afternoon, the diet consisting of agricultural crops such as corn, soybeans and milo (4), in addition to small green leaves, seeds, and insects (5). Young chicks in particular rely heavily on insects during the first few weeks of life (4).

The breeding season begins in early spring and extends until June (4). Areas known as ‘booming grounds’ or ‘leks’ are used by males as places to dance and call to attract females (4) (5). Males fight among themselves for territories on the lek, with one or two males normally emerging as dominant, and subsequently performing the majority of the mating (8). After mating, females build their nests in tall grass, laying between 4 and 15 eggs per clutch, with an average of 12, which are incubated for approximately 26 days (4) (8). The hatching period peaks from late May to early June (4) when insect populations are high, to provide nourishment for the chicks (8), and the chicks then remain with the hen for eight to ten weeks (4). The chicks are quite mobile at hatching and can fly short distances by two weeks (8). Greater prairie chickens live to about two to three years in the wild (5).

The greater prairie chicken has undergone rapid population declines, and has already disappeared from a number of U.S. states in which it was formerly common (1). Loss of prairie habitat through conversion to cropland has posed the most significant threat to the species, and it was this that was primarily responsible for the extinction of the heath hen (T. c. cupido) (2). Additionally, the heath hen suffered from excessive hunting, fires, introduced foxes, feral cats and collection for museums (7). Attwater’s prairie hen (T. c. attwateri) populations have also declined dramatically due to loss of habitat to farmland, over-grazing by cattle and urbanisation, with an estimated 97% loss of habitat within the bird’s historic range and fewer than 60 birds remaining in 2003 (8). As habitat becomes increasingly fragmented, isolating populations, inbreeding and loss of genetic variance will reduce fitness and fertility, further contributing to the decline in numbers. Hunting of the greater prairie chicken continues legally in four states, and the species may also suffer from competition with the ring-necked pheasant, Phasianus colchicus (2).

Management efforts have so far focussed on manipulation of grazing pressure, control of burning, provision of thick vegetation for protective cover and establishment of reserves. Population reintroductions may be necessary to expand the bird’s distribution, but so far such attempts have had mixed success. Legislation against hunting exists in most U.S. states but has not always been effective, with both the heath hen and the Attwater’s prairie hen suffering badly from hunting pressure despite being protected. Removal of the ring-necked pheasant may reduce competition and is a potential initiative for the future (2). More contiguous habitat is desperately required to reconnect scattered, remnant populations. However, with the vast majority of flocks living on private land, their future unfortunately rests in the hands of the landowner (4). In Texas, efforts have therefore been made to provide information and incentives for landowners to manage their land for the benefit of the Attwater’s prairie hen, with the help of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A captive breeding programme of the Attwater’s prairie hen was also begun in 1993, which breeds individuals for release into the wild while concurrent efforts continue to increase the amount of habitat available to the subspecies (8). The success of these efforts remains to be seen. Indeed, with just over 200 skins and mounts in zoological collections being all that remains of the extinct heath hen (7), the fate of this subspecies acts as a powerful reminder of what faces the greater prairie chicken in the future if current efforts fail to protect it.

For more information on the greater prairie chicken see:

BirdLife International:
http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species

Missouri Department of Conservation:
http://www.mdc.mo.gov/landown/wild/pchicken/reference/

Texas Parks and Wildlife Publications: Attwater’s Prairie Chicken Booklet:
http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_bk_w7000_0013_attwaters_prairie_chicken.pdf

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact: arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2005)
    http://www.redlist.org
  2. BirdLife International (December, 2005)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species
  3. CITES (November, 2005)
    http://www.cites.org
  4. Missouri Department of Conservation (December, 2005)
    http://www.mdc.mo.gov/landown/wild/pchicken/reference/
  5. Texas Parks and Wildlife (December, 2005)
    http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/wild/species/apc
  6. nature.ca: Canadian Museum of Nature (December, 2005)
    http://www.nature.ca/notebooks/english/egrtchic.htm
  7. Zoological Museum Amsterdam (December, 2005)
    http://ip30.eti.uva.nl/zma3d/detail.php?id=113&sort=taxon&type=family
  8. Texas Parks and Wildlife Publications: Attwater’s Prairie Chicken Booklet (December, 2005)
    http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_bk_w7000_0013_attwaters_prairie_chicken.pdf