Inhabiting a small, fragmented range in the southern Great Plains, the lesser prairie chicken is a chunky chicken-like bird. Gathering in flocks of as many as 80 individuals, the Texas population is associated with shinnery oak-bluestem communities, often nesting under shinnery oaks or amid tall bunchgrasses. Like their larger relative the greater prairie chicken, they gather on short-grass “leks” to perform elaborate mating rituals every spring and fall at dawn and dusk. During these communal courtship displays, older and more dominant males tend to occupy the center, pushing younger males to the periphery.
Nesting usually starts in mid-April, usually within two weeks of a lek display. Hens lay one egg per day in a bowl-shaped depression lined with grasses and feathers, averaging 10 eggs per clutch. After 23 to 26 days, the hatchlings emerge. They can fly short distances within two weeks, though they remain with their mothers for 12 to15 weeks. They may live as long as five years.
Once a common species, lesser prairie chickens are now a candidate for federal endangered listing. Since 1900, the species’ total population has been reduced by as much as 97%. Today, less than 50,000 individuals remain. The main cause of this decline is loss of habitat as native grasslands have been converted to cropland or degraded by overgrazing.
The preservation of this keystone prairie species was the deciding factor in the Conservancy’s decision to expand conservation efforts in the Texas Panhandle and will be central to work at the newly created Yoakum Dunes Preserve.
Tidbit: In addition to being a steady food source, the prairie chicken also played an integral role in the societies of some Plains Indian tribes. There are a number of recorded brave names involving the prairie chicken, and some experts believe the bird’s distinct mating ritual inspired Sioux cultural dances.