LESSER PRAIRIE- CHICKEN  Tympanuchus pallidicinctusTympanuchus pallidicinctus

The display of a group of Lesser Prairie-Chicken males at their lek is one on the most fascinating events on the southwestern Great Plains on an early spring morning. As the dawn starts to lighten the sky, the males can be heard calling before they are visible. The booming call, amplified by the air-sacs on the side of their necks, has been variously described as gobbling, bubbling or yodeling. Males at leks also produce cackling calls. While a number of males may participate in the displays, only a few dominant males actually mate with the females attracted to the lek. After mating the females leave the lek area to choose a nest site as much as several kilometers away and raise a brood of chicks.

Predation takes a heavy toll; in a study in Kansas only about 30% of clutches produced at least one chick. Primary predators on nests are coyotes and snakes, while adults are hunted by hawks, owls, and skunks as well. Some females renest after a failed nest, but success rates for second nests averaged only 15%, possibly because snakes are more active in warmer temperatures.

Lesser Prairie-Chickens face many hazards in the wild; maximum life span is estimated at 5 years and annual mortality for adults may be as high as 50% (Giesen 1998, Pitman et al. 2006).

DISTRIBUTION. During the 1987-1992 TBBA field work observers found 2 distinct populations, one in the northeast Panhandle, with 2 confirmed breeding records in latilong block 36100 and 7 probable in 35100.  Near the New Mexico border TBBA field workers found breeding evidence in blocks 33102 (1-confirmed, 3-probable, 1-possible),  33102 (1-possible) and 32102 (1-possible).  These are the two populations Lockwood and Freeman (2004) describe from Lipscomb to Collingsworth counties (northeast) and in the vicinity of Andrews, Bailey and Gaines counties.

This species also breeds in southeast Colorado (Winn 1998), southwestern Kansas, western Oklahoma and eastern New Mexico (Giesen 1998).

SEASONAL OCCURRENCE. Lesser Prairie-Chickens are resident year-round in their breeding range in Texas. (Oberholser 1974). Across the range attendance of females at leks peaks in the second and third weeks of April and hatching peaks in late May to mid-June (Giesen 1998).

BREEDING HABITAT. Lesser Prairie- Chickens breed in Texas in areas containing sand sagebrush (Artemesia filifolia), shinnery oak (Quercus havardii) and bunch grasses such as little bluestem (Andropogon scoparius; Oberholser 1974).  Nest scrapes are placed under a shrub or tuft of dead grass in denser than average vegetation. The nest, a shallow depression in the soil, is lined with grasses, leaves and feathers (Giesen 1998).

The female lays  about 12 (range 8-13) eggs, variably colored from white to pale lavender  or gray (see Harrison [1979] for photo of markings) about 2 weeks after copulation. Incubation lasts 24-26 days and the hen and chicks leave the nest within 24 hours after the eggs hatch. On average 25-30% of clutches produce at least one chick. The average size of the hen’s brood is 3.5-7.8 chicks (varying primarily with annual precipitation). She broods the chicks during the night  and part of the day for the first week and then only at night.

STATUS. Across its 5-state range Lesser Prairie-Chicken populations have declined to about 3% of their levels in the 1800s (Pitman et al. 2006). In 1998 this species was a candidate for listing under the Federal Endangered Species Act (Giesen 1998). As of 2006 Texas still had open seasons for hunting of this grouse (Texas Parks and Wildlife web site).

Oberholser (1974) reported Lesser Prairie- Chicken as very locally fairly common about 1970. In the 19th century the species had been common south to San Angelo.  Lockwood and Freeman (2004) consider this grouse rare to uncommon and local now. Oberholser’s (1974) shows a much larger range than the TBBA map below.

The recent decline contrasts with the situation in Colorado where the Lesser Prairie-Chicken population has increased slowly in recent years, apparently due to better land management (Winn 1998). The future of this species in Texas is not encouraging, although individuals may move into the state from neighboring states (Oklahoma and New Mexico) where these grouse are not hunted.

Text by Robert C. Tweit (2006)

Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map

Literature cited.

Giesen, K. M. 1998. Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus). InThe birds of North America, No. 364 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

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

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 Texas, Vol. 1. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Pitman, J. C., Hagen,  C. A., Jamison, B. E., Robel, R. J., Loughin, T. M. and Applegate, R. D. 2006. Nesting ecology of Lesser Prairie-Chickens in sand sagebrush prairie of southwestern Kansas. Wilson J. Ornithol. 118: 23-35.,

Winn, R. 1998. Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus). In Colorado breeding bird atlas, pp. 146-147 (H. E. Kingery, ed.), Colorado Bird Atlas Partnership, Denver.

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