Greater Prairie Chicken perform their spectacular booming displays every spring
on traditional sites, called leks. Males have inflatable sacs on the sides of
their neck which inflate during courting displays, and also have long feathers
which are raised while displaying. Greater Prairie Chickens are much reduced in
range and in numbers due to the loss of native tall-grass prairies. A
former subspecies, the "Heath Hen" was once found along the East Coast, but the
last ones were extirpated on Martha's Vineyard by the early 1930s. Another
subspecies, "Atwater's Prairie Chicken" is found near coastal regions in Texas
and is in serious danger of extinction. In South Dakota, however, they are
relatively common in the central part of the state, so much so that hunting
seasons are allowed for Greater Prairie Chickens.
Habitat: Requires relatively undisturbed
prairie, originally living on natural tallgrass prairie. They can tolerate
a small amount of agricultural land interspersed with prairie, but generally
become less and less numerous as the percentage of agricultural land increases.
Diet: Primarily feeds on leaves, seeds, berries, and
waste grain in the winter, as well as acorns where available. In the
summer, these items are augmented by insects, especially when they are breeding
and feeding young.
Behavior: Forages most often near dawn and dusk,
foraging on the ground most of the time, but also up in trees and shrubs.
Nesting: May and June breeding in South Dakota, with
lek displays occurring earlier. The nest itself is a simple depression on
the ground, lined with grasses, feathers, and sometimes dead leaves or other
vegetative material. The female lays between 6 and 15 eggs, and she alone
incubates them. The young hatch after about 24 days.
Song: Long, low hooting from male in display.
Both males and females also having clucking sounds.
Migration: Generally a permanent resident, although individuals may
move around within the same general area.
Similar Species: Sharp-tailed Grouse.
See the species comparison
chart for tips on differentiating between Greater
Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse.
Lesser Prairie-Chicken also very
similar, but the two species do not overlap in geographic range, other than a
very small part of northwestern Kansas. Within that range, there are
hybrids of the two species that are found.
Status: The now Atlantic Coast race (the Heath
Hen) is now extinct. Other races such as the Texas Coast race (Attwater's) is
seriously endangered. Extirpated locally elsewhere, they are greatly
reduced in number and in range from their historical numbers, with estimates
that they have declined by more than 90% in the last four decades. Numbers
continue to decline as grassland habitats are lost to human uses. They are
still common in parts of Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota, but given the
overall threats to the species,
the IUCN classifies the
Greater Prairie Chicken as a "vulnerable" species.
Cornell University's "All About Birds - Greater Prairie Chicken"
E-nature.com: Greater Prairie Chicken
Photo Information: December 27th, 2016 - Fort Pierre
National Grasslands, South Dakota - Terry Sohl