Lesser prairie-chickens are rotund, neutrally colored ground-dwelling birds, weighing around 700 to 800 grams. They are usually between 38 and 41 centimeters long, with a short tail. Lesser prairie-chickens are grey to brown, paler in the breast, with heavy barring on their plumage. Unlike females, males have yellow eye combs, long decorative feathers that are raised when they give mate displays, and red air sacs on their neck. (Behney, et al., 2012; Coomansingh, 2010)
Lesser prairie-chickens (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) are found in the high plains areas of southeastern Colorado, western Kansas and Oklahoma, eastern New Mexico, and the Texas panhandle. In the past, their territory was much larger. It is difficult to tell how large their previous range was because records of these birds may have actually been misidentified greater prairie-chickens. However, remains of lesser prairie-chickens have been found as far west as Oregon. (Coomansingh, 2010; Sullivan, et al., 2000; Van Den Bussche, et al., 2003; Wolfe, et al., 2007)
Lesser prairie-chickens live in the high plains. Their preferred habitats include shrubs, mixed with tall grasses and sandy soil. This habitat allows them to hide from predators, stay cool in the summer, and find plenty of insects to eat. During the breeding season, males gather in more open areas so their mating displays are more likely to be seen. (Coomansingh, 2010; Davis, 2009; Van Den Bussche, et al., 2003; Wolfe, et al., 2007; Woodward, et al., 2001)
Lesser prairie-chickens display lekking behavior. During this behavior, males group together in the spring and fall in areas where they can easily be seen and vie for mates. Males may make aggressive displays towards each other by spreading their wings, holding their ear and tail feathers up, and inflating the red air sacs on their throats. Sometimes these displays may lead to actual fights. Males that become dominant are usually found at the center of the lek and mate with many more females. Once the territories are established, males begin displaying at sunrise and sunset. Males call out to the females, dance, and continue to make aggressive gestures towards other males. Females select males based on how active they are and their vocal ability. (Behney, et al., 2012; Coomansingh, 2010; Davis, 2009; Holt, et al., 2010)
Lesser prairie-chickens breed in the springtime. However, males also display in lekking sites in the fall, this is probably to establish a position in the lek for the following spring. Male lesser prairie-chickens may return to the same lekking site for several years. Even though they have lost a great deal of their range, these birds still have a good population. This may be partially due to the fact that females often leave the lekking ground where they mated to find a good nesting area near other lekking grounds. (Behney, et al., 2012; Coomansingh, 2010; Davis, 2009; Snyder, 1992; Van Den Bussche, et al., 2003)
After mating, females leave the lek to find a good nesting spot. Nesting areas are chosen based on how covered they are, how much nesting material is available, and how close it is to other lekking sites. Clutch sizes range from 6 to 14 eggs. The eggs are buff to cream colored, with fine speckling that can be olive to pale brown, sometimes including lavender markings. Eggs are incubated for about three weeks before hatching. Juveniles become independent at 12 to 15 weeks. Females that are unsuccessful with their first nest may attempt a second one in the same breeding season. Aside from being showoffs, the males contribute very little to raising their young. (Behney, et al., 2012; Coomansingh, 2010; Hagen and Giesen, 2013; Holt, et al., 2010)
Lesser prairie-chickens do not usually have very long lifespans. As many as 65% of these birds do not live beyond their first year. Very few lesser prairie-chickens reach their estimated maximum lifespan of five years. Their high mortality rate is partially due to predators and running into fences and power lines. (Clapp, et al., 1982; Snyder, 1992; Wolfe, et al., 2007)
Lesser prairie-chickens do not migrate; instead they stay in the dry high plains areas of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico year round. These birds live on the ground and use grasses and shrubs for food and cover. Lesser prairie-chickens need shrubs to protect their nests and to shade themselves. In the winter months when temperatures become extreme, these birds will burrow in the snow for shelter. In the spring and fall, males gather in leks to display for females, using calls and dancing to attract them. In addition to these shows, males become aggressive towards each other to establish territories within the lek. Aggressive behaviors include ritual postures, short flights, pursuit of other males, and fighting. Dominant males and females establish themselves by using violence. (Behney, et al., 2012; Coomansingh, 2010; Davis, 2009; Hagen and Giesen, 2013; Wolfe, et al., 2007)
Male lesser prairie-chickens can have a home range size of up to 5 kilometers squared, while females can live in up to 2.3 kilometers squared. Their ranges have become smaller due to the fragmentation of their native habitats by farming and man-made structures. (Snyder, 1992)
While lekking, males make visual displays to attract mates by lifting their ear feathers, flaring their eye combs, and inflating their red throat sacs, all while taking aggressive stances towards other males. They also attract females by making specific noises. These birds use sight and sound to understand their environment and communicate. (Behney, et al., 2012; Coomansingh, 2010)
Lesser prairie-chickens eat insects like grasshoppers and beetles, as well as greenery and seeds from the grasses and shrubs in their habitat, their diet varies with the seasons. Lesser prairie-chickens gather in flocks during the fall and winter and forage on row grains and acorn masts. (Coomansingh, 2010)
Lesser prairie-chickens are often preyed on by raptors like red-tailed hawks and mammals such as coyotes, bobcats, foxes and skunks. These birds may be preyed on even more in areas that are developed because ground predators follow fences and roads, and aerial predators often roost on fences and power lines. Lesser prairie-chickens protect themselves by using shrubs and tall grasses for cover. They usually avoid tall structures, as these can be roosts for raptors. (Davis, 2009; Wolfe, et al., 2007)
Lesser prairie-chickens eat many insects, which helps to keep their numbers in check. These birds also support several predator species. Ring-necked pheasants may lay their eggs in lesser prairie-chicken nests and interrupt leks. Lesser prairie-chicken nests have also been seen containing quail eggs. These birds may also host several parasite species. (Coomansingh, 2010; Davis, 2009; Hagen and Giesen, 2013; Holt, et al., 2010)
Because lesser prairie-chickens avoid tall structures, even at the cost of lost breeding grounds, energy industries like oil and wind may not be able to get to minerals and other natural resources in areas where lesser prairie-chickens are found. (Snyder, 1992; Woodward, et al., 2001)
Lesser prairie-chickens bring tourists to communities in and around their range. Their courtship displays attract bird enthusiasts and artists. Hunters also travel to these regions, attracted by the unusual color of the males. (Coomansingh, 2010)
Lesser prairie-chickens are considered vulnerable and individual states have set up management programs for them. They are fairly stable in Kansas, while in Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico they are declining. Sport hunting is still allowed in parts of Kansas, but not in other states. Fence and power line markers are used in some areas to reduce the number deaths due to collisions. (Coomansingh, 2010; Snyder, 1992; Sullivan, et al., 2000; Van Den Bussche, et al., 2003; Wolfe, et al., 2007)
Jeremiah Muldowney (author), University of Wyoming, Hayley Lanier (editor), University of Wyoming - Casper, Leila Siciliano Martina (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.
Behney, A., B. Grisham, C. Boal, H. Whitlaw, D. Haukos. 2012. Sexual selection and mating chronology of Lesser Prairie-Chickens. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 124: 96-105.
Coomansingh, J. 2010. Resource characteristics of the Lesser Prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) and its survival on the High Plains of the United States. Prairie Perspectives: Geographical Essays, 13: 49-57.
Davis, D. 2009. Nesting ecology and reproductive success of Lesser Prairie-Chickens in shinnery oak-dominated rangelands. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 121: 322-327.
Hagen, C., K. Giesen. 2013. "Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus)" (On-line). The Birds of North America Online. Accessed December 13, 2013 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/364.
Holt, D., M. Butler, W. Ballard, C. Kukal, H. Whitlaw. 2010. Disturbance of lekking Lesser Prairie-Chickens (Tympanachus pallidicinctus) by Ring-Necked Pheasants (Phasianus colchicus). Western North American Naturalist, 70: 241-244.
Robel, R., T. Walker, C. Hagen, R. Ridley, K. Kemp, R. Applegate. 2003. Helminth parasites of lesser prairie-chicken Tympanuchus pallidicinctus in southwestern Kansas: incidence, burdens and effects. Wildlife Biology, 9/4: 341-349.
Snyder, S. 1992. "Tympanuchus cupido, T. pallidicinctus" (On-line). Fire Effects Information System. Accessed November 28, 2013 at http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/animals/bird/tymp/introductory.html.
Sullivan, R., J. Hughs, J. Lionberger. 2000. Review of the historical and present status of the Lesser Prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) in Texas. The Prairie Naturalist, 32: 177-188.
Van Den Bussche, R., S. Hoofer, D. Wiedenfeld, D. Wolfe, S. Sherrod. 2003. Genetic variation within and among fragmented populations of Lesser Prairie-Chickens (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus). Molecular Ecology, 12: 675-683.
Wolfe, D., M. Patten, E. Shochat, C. Pruett, S. Sherrod. 2007. Causes and patterns of mortality in Lesser Prairie-Chickens Tympanuchus pallidicinctus and implications for management. Wildlife Biology, 13: 95-104.
Woodward, A., S. Fuhlendorf, D. Leslie Jr., J. Shackford. 2001. Influence of landscape composition and change on lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) populations. American Midland Naturalist, 145/2: 261-274.