Sharp-tailed Grouse vs. Prairie Chicken

Identification Keys and Tips

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Sharp-tailed Grouse   Greater and Lesser Prairie Chicken
Tympanuchus phasianellus   Tympanuchus cupido, Tympanuchus pallidicinctus

Sharp-tailed Grouse - Tympanuchus phasianellus 

 

Greater Prairie Chicken - Tympanuchus cupido 

There's little practical difference visually between Greater Prairie Chickens and Lesser Prairie Chickens, so this comparison focuses on the differences between "Prairie Chickens" in general, and Sharp-tailed Grouse.  While historically there was some range overlap between Sharp-tailed Grouse and Lesser Prairie Chickens, there is no overlap in current populations, and thus the only bird a birder needs to compare against Sharp-tailed Grouse is the Greater Prairie Chicken.  Range itself is a good way to identify the species, as Sharp-tailed Grouse are found in a much wider greographic area than are Prairie Chickens. However they do overlap in range primarily in far northwestern Kansas, northeastern Colorado, central and western Nebraska, central South Dakota and North Dakota, and locally in northwestern Minnesota.

For Prairie Chickens, range is the easiest way to tell them apart.  There's only a very small band in western Kansas where both Greater Prairie Chickens and Lesser Prairie Chickens are found. Other than that location, Greater Prairie Chickens are found in more northerly locations, from northern Kansas on northward through the Dakotas, while Lesser Prairie Chickens are found from western Kansas southward through the panhandle of Texas. In terms of visual appearance, Greater Prairie Chickens are indeed a bit larger than Lesser Prairie Chickens.  Greater Prairie Chickens also tend to have heavier and more obvious barring on their underside, barring that extends all the way down the belly.  In Lesser Prairie Chickens, the barring is lighter and fades as you go down from the chest to the belly.  Note the photo above on the right is of a Greater Prairie Chicken.
Belly and Chest plumage: This is the most obvious difference betwen  the two. Sharp-tailed Grouse have distinctive "chevron" markings on the underside (see photo above), dark-colored upside-down "v" markings that are typically heaviest on the breast and fade and get smaller on the belly.   Belly and Chest Plumage: The most obvious plumage characteristic from which you can tell the two species apart.  Prairie Chickens have horizontal barring across the breast and belly (see photo above).
Tail shape: The tail is narrow and comes to a finer point at the end (hence the name "Sharp-tailed" Grouse). The pointed shape is obvious if seen well in flight. Tail shape: The tail is much more square and even from body to tip of the tail.
Tail plumage: The outer tail feathers are an obvious white, a characteristic often seen while in flight. Tail plumage:  The tail terminates with a very dark colored band (strongly different than white tail feathers on Sharp-tailed Grouse)
Neck feathering: Sharp-tailed Grouse lack the ornate "pinnae" feathers on the side of the neck.  Neck feathering: Male Prairie Chickens have long feathers on the sides of their neck called "pinnae".  These feathers are used in breeding displays, when they are raised upward.  The photo above shows the dark edged pinnae hanging from the side of the neck. Females have much less prounounced pinnae feathers.
Inflatable neck sac: Sharp-tailed Grouse males have an inflatable sac on each side of the neck that is displayed when courting on leks. They are purplish colored on Sharp-tailed Grouse. Inflatable neck sac: Greater Prairie Chickens also have an inflatable sac on the sides of their neck that are displayed when courting.  They are yellowish-orange to orange on Prairie Chickens.
Legs and feet: Both legs and feet of a Sharp-tailed Grouse have extensive feathering, covering much of the upper part of the foot. Legs and Feet:  Legs are feathered but the feet appear less extensively feathered, with more bare skin.
South Dakota Status: Commonly found throughout much of the western half and into the northeastern part of the state. South Dakota Status: Uncommon resident in the central part of South Dakota.
Sharp-tailed Grouse - Range Map Greater Prairie Chicken - Range map
Lesser Prairie-Chicken - Range Map 
 

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Greater Prairie Chicken

Additional Photos Additional Photos
Sharp-tailed Grouse - Tympanuchus phasianellus  Sharp-tailed Grouse - Tympanuchus phasianellus  Sharp-tailed Grouse - Tympanuchus phasianellus    Greater Prairie Chicken - Tympanuchus cupido  Greater Prairie Chicken - Tympanuchus cupido  Greater Prairie Chicken - Tympanuchus cupido 
Sharp-tailed Grouse - Tympanuchus phasianellus  Sharp-tailed Grouse - Tympanuchus phasianellus           

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