GREATER PRAIRIE- CHICKEN  Tympanuchus cupidoTympanuchus cupido

The Greater Prairie-Chicken, like its close relative the Lesser Prairie-Chicken (T. pallidicinctus), provides one of the best spring avian shows in North America. Males gather at dawn on their leks to dance, boom and call as they attempt to induce females to mate with them. Unfortunately in Texas, the opportunity is essentially gone to watch this species display.

This grouse was once represented in Texas by 2 subspecies:  T. c. pinnatus  in north-central and northeast Texas and Attwater’s Greater Prairie-Chicken (T. c. attwateri). The map in Oberholser (1974) illustrates their historic ranges.  The Texas population of the northern subspecies was estimated at 500,000 individuals in 1850.  During the last half of that century the population was drastically reduced by market hunting and habitat loss (plowing and overgrazing). The remaining population in Texas disappeared in the first half of the 20th century (Lehmann 1941,  Oberholser 1974).

Elsewhere T. c. pinnatus once common on the Great Plains and Canadian Prairies east to Ohio, Kentucky and southern Ontario and south to Texas and Louisiana, is now found scattered through large areas of the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas and small remnant populations in Minnesota,  Illinois, Missouri, Colorado and Oklahoma (Schroeder and Robb 1993).

A third subspecies, the Heath Hen (T. c. cupido) of the Atlantic coastal plain from Massachusetts to New Jersey, was mostly extirpated by 1835, although a small colony survived on Martha’s Vineyard Island off Massachusetts for another century (Oberholser 1974).

DISTRIBUTION. During the 1987-1992 field work for the TBBA project, volunteers found 2 confirmed and 1 probable breeding record for the “Attwater’s” subspecies in latilong block 29096 and 2 probable breeding records in 28096. All locations are in the Coastal Prairies region (see  map  in  Lockwood and Freeman [2004]).

SEASONAL OCCURRENCE. Greater Prairie-Chickens are year-round residents of their breeding range. The breeding season in Texas is February to July (based on egg dates from February 24 to June 29 (Oberholser 1974). In Colorado breeding dates were found from April 17 to June 20 (Jones 1998).

BREEDING HABITAT. In Texas Greater Prairie-Chickens breed at elevations below 60 m (200 ft) on short to mid-grass prairies.  The female forms a bowl-shaped depression in the ground which she lines with feathers, dried grass and leaves. Females lay an average of 12 smooth, tawny olive to pale brown eggs (see Harrison [1979] for photo of markings) which she incubates for 23-25 days. After hatching the precocial chicks leave the nest with the hen. She broods the chicks for about 50% of daylight hours for the first week, tapering off in the second week. The chicks feed themselves after hatching (Oberholser 1974, Harrison 1979,  Schroeder and Robb 1993).

STATUS. Attwater’s Greater Prairie-Chicken, once common on the Gulf coastal plain from southern Louisiana to Nueces County, Texas, was first affected by shooting and then by plowing and overgrazing of its habitat. The population of the subspecies was estimated at around 800,000 birds in 1880.By 1937 the population, in disjunct colonies, had dropped to about 8700 birds and by 1972 there were only 1650, primarily in 6 counties: Austin, Colorado, Goliad, Refugio, Victoria and Wharton. By 2003 only 58 birds remained in the wild (Lehmann 1941, Oberholser 1974, Lockwood and Freeman 2004).

Text by Robert C. Tweit (2006)

Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map

Literature cited.

Harrison, H. H. 1979. A field guide to western birds’ nests. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.

Jones, S. R. 1998. Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido). In Colorado breeding bird atlas, pp. 144-145 (H. E. Kingery, ed.), Colorado Bird Atlas Partnership, Denver.

Lehmann, V. W. 1941. Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, it’s life history and management. North American Fauna, no. 57.

Lockwood, M. W. and B. Freeman. 2004. The TOS handbook of Texas birds. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

Oberholser, H. C. 1974. The bird life of Texa. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Schroeder, M. A, and L. A. Robb. 11993. Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido). In The birds of North America, No.36  (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

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