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Prairie Chicken

Prairie chickens are two North American species of birds in the grouse family (Phasianidae) in the order Galliformes, the game birds. Both the greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) and the lesser prairie chicken (T. pallidicinctus) are brownish birds with a black band on the end of the tail. Male birds have colorful air sacs that are inflated during courtship and a ruff of long feathers that are erected at the same time. When wooing females, cock prairie chickens assemble in a designated arena where they engage in vigorous, ritualized combat to impress each other and the hens as they arrive. The males that are most imposing in these displays are relatively successful in mating with females from the local area. This type of communal courtship display is called a lek. The hen prairie chicken incubates the eggs and takes care of the young by herself.

The greater prairie chicken is somewhat larger than the lesser prairie chicken, with a body length of 14 in (36 cm) and orange air sacs. This species once occurred widely in many open, temperate grasslands and prairies, This display by a prairie chicken is sometimes called "booming." JLM Visuals. Reproduced by permission.

ranging from extensive dunegrass and heath communities of the Atlantic seaboard, to tall-grass and mixed-grass prairies of the middle of North America. The lesser prairie chicken is somewhat paler than the greater prairie chicken and has a body length of 13 in (33 cm) and reddish air sacs. This species had a much more restricted distribution than the greater prairie chicken, occurring in relatively dry shortgrass and semi-desert habitats in the south-central parts of the United States.

Both species of prairie chickens, but especially the greater, were badly overhunted throughout the nineteenth century and the first decade or so of the twentieth century. This predation by humans reduced their populations and extirpated the birds from many places. However, even more important than hunting pressures have been the long-term effects of conversion of the natural habitats of the prairie chicken into agricultural, residential, and other land uses. These conversions cause permanent losses of the habitat of prairie chickens and other wildlife, fragmenting the remaining populations, making them vulnerable to extirpation.

In the eastern parts of its range, a subspecies of the greater prairie chicken, called the heath hen (T. c. cupido), was initially abundant and resident in coastal heaths and grasslands from Massachusetts to Virginia. Overhunting reduced the heath hen populations to low levels, and by the time that this bird was finally protected from hunting, most of its original natural habitat had been lost. Moreover, heath hens suffered high mortality due to introduced predators (especially domestic cats) and from diseases borne by introduced pheasants. These pressures made the few remaining populations of prairie chicken extremely vulnerable to the deleterious effects of the extreme events of winter weather to natural predation. The last population of heath hen lived on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and in spite of protection from hunting for several decades, and of management to maintain its habitat in a suitable condition, the heath hen became extinct in 1932.

Attwater's greater prairie chicken (T. c. attwateri) is another subspecies that used to be abundant in coastal prairies of Texas and Louisiana. This bird has suffered from the combined effects of overhunting and habitat conversions to agriculture, oil and gas development, and residential development. This endangered bird now only exists in a few isolated, remnant populations, in total numbering fewer than 500 individuals. These imperilled birds are threatened by continuing habitat losses, especially to residential development. However, many of these birds live in Attwater's Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge in south Texas, where the habitat is intensively managed to favor this bird. Hopefully, these efforts will prove to be successful.

Bill Freedman

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