There are two species of prairie-chickens that can be found in North America, the Greater and Lesser prairie-chicken. There is one subspecies of the Greater prairie-chicken: Attwater’s prairie-chicken. There was another, the heath hen, but they are now extinct. The extant species of prairie-chickens are endangered. They were once abundant across the Great Plains in the United States but the conversion of their grassland home to cities and farmland has put their populations in a critical condition. In several states, there are ongoing conservation efforts to revitalize these birds’ species.
Male prairie-chickens can be recognized by the distinctive bright yellow air sacs on either side of their throat and the yellow comb feathers above their eyes. The Greater prairie-chicken has larger air sacs than the Lesser. Lesser prairie-chickens are also smaller and paler than the Greater prairie-chickens.
The air sacs help the male prairie-chickens in their courting rituals. After inflating their air sacs, the males can produce loud booming sounds which can be heard over a mile away. This is why prairie-chickens are also known as “boomers”. In addition to their booming calls, prairie-chickens fight and chase one another, puff up their feathers, and perform a dance to court. Birds usually return to the same area to court one another year after year. Some locations have been in use for decades, a few for close to a century.
Females choose shallow depressions on the ground hidden by tall grass in which to build their nests. They line their nests with feathers, grass, and leaves. A typical clutch for prairie-chickens 10-13, with Lesser prairie-chickens’ clutches averaging slightly more than Greater prairie-chickens’. The incubation period is between three and four weeks. Chicks hatch in the spring.
Shortly after hatching, the chicks are able to follow their mother away from the nest. They are able to find all of their own food but usually stay with their mother for three months. Lesser prairie-chicks are able to fly at about two weeks old, and Greater prairie-chicks can fly at three weeks old.
The diet of a prairie-chicken includes insects, seeds, leaves, berries, and flowers. Chicks tend to eat more insects than adults, although all ages eat more insects in the summer when there are plenty of grasshoppers and beetles available. In the fall and winter, they may begin to eat grain from farms when their preferred food is hard to find.
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