The greater prairie chicken is an unusual and increasingly rare bird, native to the American plains of the Midwest. Notable for startling flashes of color and its serious mating dance, this bird has many admirers and friends among the birding world. Habitat reduction and hunting did considerable damage to the wild population of these birds; several subspecies are extinct or critically endangered, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) declared the species vulnerable to extinction in 2008, noting a continued downward population trend.
Tympanuchus cupido, as the prairie chicken is officially known, is a medium-sized bird that somewhat resembles its more common chicken cousins. Patterned in a camouflaging brown and white, the male bird also features bright orange air sacs on each side of the throat, which are inflated as part of a mating dance or ritual. Female birds are more uniformly brown.
The mating dance of the male greater prairie chicken has long interested bird lovers. During mating season, several males may perform the dance in the same area, hoping to attract a mate from among nearby females. During the dance, the bird hops or staggers around, keeping its head low, puffing up a tuft of feathers on the head, and repeatedly inflating the orange throat sacs. Dance is accompanied with song; the male makes a soft, low hooting call throughout.
Prairie chickens mate in March and April with eggs hatching in about three weeks. Before hatching, nests face several dangers from competing species and the environment. Nests are built on the ground, making them vulnerable to the commonly heavy spring rains on the prairies. Habitat reduction has lead to another threat; pheasants will sometimes lay their faster-hatching eggs in a convenient chicken nest, leading the chicken parents to believe that young have already hatched and thus neglecting the nest.
These once wide-ranging birds are now constricted to a far small area. Whereas their range once flourished throughout parts of over 20 states, the greater prairie chicken now only exists in patchy settlements in North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, with remnant populations in Texas, Minnesota, and Illinois. The heath hen, a subspecies of the greater prairie chicken that lived along the Atlantic coast, was declared extinct in 1932. With population numbers continuing to drop, some environmental experts believe that only extraordinary measures will keep the population viable in the coming years.