The dance of North American grassland grouse, from the impressive courtship of prairie-chickens to the bizarre behaviors of sage-grouse, are known to nature lovers as one of the most impressive wildlife displays in North America.
Sadly, once found throughout North American prairies and numbered in the millions, these extraordinary birds are now dramatically down in number.
All grassland grouse dance during their spring mating musicale. The grouse provide their own orchestral accompaniment with a variety of sounds.
The greater prairie chicken is a large bird in the grouse family. This North American species was once abundant, but has become extremely rare and extirpated over much of its range. Greater prairie chickens prefer undisturbed prairie and were originally found in tall grass prairies.
Adults of both sexes are medium to large chicken-like bird, stocky, with round-wings. Adult males have orange comb-like feathers over their eyes and dark, elongated head feathers that can be raised or lain along neck.
Greater prairie chickens do not migrate. They are territorial birds and often defend their booming grounds. These booming grounds are the area in which they perform their displays in hopes of attracting females. Their displays consist of inflating air sacs located on the side of their neck and snapping their tails.
The Lesser Prairie-Chicken is slightly smaller and paler than its near relative, the Greater Prairie-Chicken. Like its larger relative, it is known for its lekking behavior.
It is now found only in restricted areas of five states in the southern Great Plains. It inhabits open rangeland dominated by shinnery oak or sand sagebrush.
The range of lesser prairie-chicken has been reduced by over 90 percent and its population has declined by an estimated 97 percent since the 1800s. In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received a petition to list the lesser prairie-chicken as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
The Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken is a subspecies of the Greater Prairie-Chicken.
Once numbering over a million throughout the Gulf coast prairies, their numbers are now only a few hundreds and mainly depend on extensive conservation efforts by the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge west of Houston, Texas.
Listed on the federal endangered species since 1967, they are one of the most highly endangered species.
Hybridization of greater and lesser prairie-chicken is uncommon but well established in the western part of Kansas where their ranges overlap.
Hybrid prairie-chickens have intermediate characteristics of both species in appearance and booming display behaviors. The greater have darker coloration than the lesser, and the hybrids are in-between. Hybrids also have intermediate vocalizations of both greater and lesser prairie-chickens, combining booming and gobbling.
It appears that in most cases, females of both species do not recognize hybrid males as a mate and ignore them on the lek.