A brown chicken with yellow markings around it's head stands in yellow grass
Male greater prairie chicken displaying on booming grounds at TNC's Bluestem Prairie Preserve in Minnesota © Bruce Leventhal

Animals we Protect

Greater Prairie Chicken

Tympanuchus cupido

Meet the Greater Prairie Chicken 

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.

During booming, the chickens inflate their pinnae feathers and their throat sacs, and then they crouch down and pop their tail feathers all at once — boom! And they start stamping and rotating in a half-circle one way and the other and make runs at one another.

side view of a chicken with yellow around its head standing in yellow grass
Greater prairie chicken inflates its throat sacks to prepare for booming. © Dominique Braud

Protecting the Greater Prairie Chicken 
 
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.

To help address habitat loss, The Nature Conservancy is restoring high-quality tallgrass prairie on the Great River Grasslands in Missouri. Here, TNC has a couple thousand acres, and we are working to aggressively restore it and convert land back to prairie using a diverse mix of locally produced seeds, as well as seeds harvested at Dunn Ranch Prairie.

TNC is also removing invasive woody vegetation and invasive species and purchasing lands bordering our high-quality prairies. The Conservancy puts conservation easements on these lands to ensure the area is only used for sustainable grazing, and the lands are put back on the open market.