Greater prairie chickens are native to North America. Habitat loss caused a great decline in their number and almost pushed them towards extinction. Gradually the number of these birds increased as efforts are taken to protect them from extinction. This species, which goes by the binomial name (Tympanuchus cupido) belongs to the grouse family and is well-known for its mating ritual.
Great Prairie chickens are medium-sized birds. They have round black feathers with white stripes running across it. They have a short and round tail that stands erect, pointing upward. Males have a yellow patch around their neck, which they inflate while performing the courtship ritual. Females are smaller and lighter than males and they lack the yellow comb and the patch around their neck. The birds from grouse family are around 6.5 kg and are 31 to 95 cm in length. Heath Hen (extinct) , the Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus) and Attwater's Prairie Chicken are three of the subspecies that are grouped under Tympanuchus cupido. Tall grass prairies or agricultural land are the areas where these birds find comfort for displaying courtship, nesting and brooding. However, the type of habitat changes and are always ranging to vast grassy fields.
Segmenting the Habitat
Greater prairie choose their dwelling place as per their needs. These mainly consists of wetlands, croplands, oak stands and short grasses. Therefore, let us take a look at how the habitat changes as per their requirements.
The mating pattern of the grouse family birds is referred to as lekking. The area they choose to perform the ritual is termed as the lekking ground. Males of these species create a small territory where they perform their competitive mating ritual. The males form a small territory and periodically display their wonderful courtship. The females then come to the lekking site and selects the dominant and desirable males to proceed with the ritual.
As the birds want to make their best impression, the lekking grounds are mostly low vegetation lands. These birds also use grazed hill tops, burned land, wet meadows, cultivated land needle grass fields. The Great Prairie chickens use undisturbed lands that are away from traffic and roads.
During the lekking process, only a few males are lucky to find their mates. After mating, females lay eggs a little away from the lekking ground, which will never be used again for the next courtship process. Nesting area is very important to keep their eggs and chicks safe from predation. The nesting habitat has medium-sized vegetation with dense shrubs and woods. Eggs are usually laid between April and June. A clutch consists of 12 eggs and their incubation lasts up to 26 days. These nests are built in pastures and hayfield. The nesting cover is always lined with thick and tall vegetation that provides them a good escape cover from its predators. Indian grass, switchgrass and bluestem provide warmth and are preferred by females for nesting purposes. The grasses should be of medium height so that females can notice any potential threat to protect the eggs.
The Great Prairie chickens habitat slightly differs when it comes to brood-rearing. Once the eggs hatch the female must shift the base to a little low height vegetation. The land must be covered with grass that can hide the broods and also provide them with sufficient food. Insects are a great source of nutrition to broods. Burned hayfileds and grazed pastures, provide a lot of insects and are best areas for sheltering the broods.
Winter brings scarcity in food and therefore, makes the living conditions tough for these birds. Winter is also the time for roosting and feeding, which requires warm shelters. 20 inches tall grasses and sedges provide these chickens with sufficient comfort, warmth and also food. Dense shrubs, woods and wetlands are good shelters for roosting. Hence, these are the best habitats during winters.
The mortality rate increases during the winters, due to scarcity of food. These birds spend their energy in looking for food, which may cost them their life. Human interference, predation and invasion of vegetation are the main reasons that has resulted into a gradual decline of this species. As the result of conservation efforts, the population of bird is gradually increasing, but it is too soon to postulate on the future of this bird.