The greater prairie chicken belongs to the Grouse family. Tympanuchus cupido is their scientific name. The natural habitats are the grasslands and Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma are few of the states where they are found. It is easy to identify these birds due to a few unique physical attributes in them. The population of this species has reduced considerably. Now, they are declared 'endangered' and steps are being taken to protect them.
Some Intriguing Facts
External Appearance: The greater prairie chicken has a body size of around 16-18 inches. They generally weigh around 2-3 lbs. They have black and white or brown and white stripes. They have a short rounded tail. The males have a completely black tail, while the females have a brown band on their black tail. They have the ability to fly. They are also called Pinnated Grouse, due to the stiff feathers on their neck. They have feathers on their legs and feet, and this keeps them warm in snow. The males are more attractive than the females, and are comparatively larger than females. In males, there is an orange colored air sac on each side of the neck and adult males also have a yellow comb over their eyes. The air sacs are not covered with feathers.
Courtship: The greater prairie chicken is known for its fascinating displays during the mating season. They are polygamous by nature. They gain sexual maturity at the age of one. Before mating, the males have the task of attracting females for courtship. Males gather in a region where there is little or no vegetation. This region is termed as the Lek. Each male occupies a space for himself. Then the males start dancing. Simultaneously, they inflate their orange air sacs and make a "booming" sound. This "boom" can be heard even from a mile away. The feathers behind their neck also stiffen. The females wander around the Lek, observing the males. If a male is successful in impressing a female, they mate. Around 90% of the mating is done by the dominant males.
Territorial Dominance: These birds do not migrate. The males are very sensitive about their territory. They get aggressive if other males try to invade their region. The orange esophageal air sacs inflate during fights too, accompanied with the "booming" noises and the stiffening of the feathers behind their neck.
Adaptation and Diet: These birds are not perturbed by the rough winters. They have adapted well to the snow. There are tough projections of skin on their feet, this helps them to walk through the snow. These birds dig into the snow, around 10 inches. After that they make a horizontal tunnel. This tunnel functions as an Igloo and, in a way, insulates them from external freezing temperatures. They are omnivores and they feed on fruits and seeds. They also feed on insects such as grasshoppers, ants, etc. In winter, they become totally herbivorous due to the lack of insects.
Breeding and Roosting: These species of Grouse need tall grasses to breed and roost. The females set up the nest alone, by making a depression. They use dry grass and feathers to form a compound like structure around the depression. Then she lays a batch of 5-15 eggs. The incubation period is around 25 days. The chicks are capable of feeding themselves immediately after hatching, so the females leave the nest as soon as the eggs hatch. It takes the chicks around 8 weeks to become fully independent.
Threats: They are endangered, so it is illegal to hunt them. Few of its subspecies are on the verge of extinction. Even though they are not severely affected by snow, rains tend to be risky for them. The chicks drenched in heavy spring rains are prone to death. Ring-necked pheasants are also responsible for a significant decline in the population of these birds. The ring-necked pheasants lay their eggs in the nest of the greater prairie chickens. The greater prairie chickens incubate the eggs. The eggs of the ring-necked pheasant tend to hatch first. The female greater prairie chicken feels that her eggs have hatched and thus isolates the nest and her eggs remain unhatched. Other threats include skunks and foxes. The mortality rate is approximately 50% a year among adults.
The greater prairie chickens are really fascinating. Their courtship dance displays are amazing to witness. However, their population is decreasing at an alarming rate and hence, more measures are needed for their conservation.