With its uniformly barred plumage, the greater prairie chicken is nearly identical to the lesser prairie chicken, though slightly darker and, aptly enough, larger. In summer, the bird feeds mostly on insects, seeds and fruits. It hides its nests in tall, dense grass, laying 7 to 17 eggs, which the female incubates for 23 to 26 days. Females typically lead hatchlings to shorter grass, also the scene of elaborate mating rituals in which males drum their feet in stylized dances and make a booming call that can be heard for over a mile. The open courtship areas are known as “leks” or “booming grounds,” and the courtship displays are the species’ most famous trait.
The three subspecies of the greater prairie chicken have enjoyed radically different fates. The heath hen became extinct in 1932, Attwater’s prairie hen survives only in small portions of southeast Texas and is listed as Endangered in the US, and the greater prairie chicken, though threatened and isolated in much of its range, remains numerous enough to be hunted in four states. Once inhabiting the wide plains of the central US in vast numbers, the bird has fared poorly as its grassland habitat has been converted to other uses.
Aside from habitat loss, the greater prairie chicken is also threatened by loss of genetic variance resulting from the isolation of populations with no natural corridors between groups. Most management focuses on habitat improvement, but population reintroduction may eventually be necessary to ensure genetic diversity. The largest remaining populations are in Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota.March 08, 2011