Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine “Legend, Lore, Legacy” column.
The lesser prairie chicken, as the name suggests, is the slightly smaller cousin of the greater prairie chicken and the rare Attwater’s variety. The bird resembles something between a pint-sized barnyard chicken and an overgrown quail: dun brown, barred with darker stripes for camouflage and sporting a bit of yellow about the head—handsome enough in a prairie chicken sort of way. But in the spring the male, as males are inclined to do, affects something considerably more flamboyant. The amorous rooster finds himself a lek—a spot of high, open ground where his flirting can be seen by passing hens. (The roosters seem to remember where they got lucky before and revisit the same lek year after year.) Arriving at the mating grounds, the eager dude inflates red-orange air sacs on the sides of his throat, bristles up the long feathers on the nape of his neck, (picture the giant collars on Elvis’s jumpsuits during the Vegas years) and hops about crooning the prairie chicken version of “Love Me Tender,” which comes off sounding like someone blowing across the top of an empty soda bottle. Apparently the females think this is cool.
Some anthropologists who have observed both the mating dance of the prairie chicken and the traditional dances of Plains Indians think maybe the Indians took their ceremonial ideas from the prairie chickens. If I were an anthropologist I would avoid mentioning that theory to my Cheyenne and Apache friends. However, the long upright feathers on the back of the bird’s head during courtship display do look very much like a Plains Indian headdress. And the dipping and strutting and hopping from foot to foot, well… anyway, it’s only a theory.
But despite their exuberant courting and mating, lesser prairie chickens are not flourishing as a species. An unlucky combination of vulnerabilities makes survival tough for the little prairie hens. The birds need large tracts of specific native grasslands to provide seeds and insects, interspersed with a certain amount of shinnery or short scrub to provide shelter from the summer heat. Habitat conditions can’t be too this or too that, but have to be just right, a set of criteria that Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Wildlife Diversity Ecologist Bob Sullivan calls “the Goldilocks Syndrome.” Between the plow and the cow, most of their just-right habitat has been lost or altered beyond their use.
Furthermore, being ground-nesting creatures, the birds have always been a menu favorite for predators. Eggs are plundered by ravens, skunks, badgers and bullsnakes. Coyotes, bobcats, hawks and owls dine on all sizes and ages. An imported species and the hunter’s darling, the ring-necked pheasant, often disturbs the prairie chicken’s mating ritual and steals its nests. And the birds don’t cope well with either drought or flood. For your average lesser prairie chicken, life’s a bitch and then you die.
Before John Deere and barbed wire the birds held their own by the sheer volume of their numbers—nature’s compensation for high mortality rates. It’s estimated that there were more than 2 million birds in 1900. But lesser prairie chickens have a low tolerance for change. They simply can’t make a living on cultivated cropland or rangeland where native cover has been altered. In the bird field guides, their extant range is indicated on the map by a few little spots, no more than droppings on the hood of a Suburban. The sparse Texas population clings to existence in isolated groups on private ranches in the panhandle high plains. (Small scattered populations also exist on the prairies of western Oklahoma, western Kansas, and eastern Colorado.) The birds are not yet officially listed as threatened but wildlife biologists remember the sudden and tragic decline of the Attwater’s prairie chicken and hope to head off a similar fate for the lesser.
In that regard, there’s some promising news to report. Sullivan is guardedly optimistic about the lesser’s future prospects in the Panhandle. “The preservation and restoration of shortgrass prairie habitat is a top priority with TPW,” he says, “and we’re finding more and more landowners interested and willing to help.” Sullivan goes on to describe an incentive program jointly funded and administered by TPW and the US Fish & Wildlife Service whereby landowners receive assistance, and in return, agree to some specific guidelines for habitat restoration and protection. USFWS biologist John Hughes reports that on many of these program lands, lesser prairie chicken population numbers are beginning to stabilize.
The bonus effects are equally heartening. Biologists are seeing improved circumstances for all species in these restored ecosystems, including fish and river-oriented wildlife where protected lands include riparian corridors. Better ground cover promotes bigger populations of rabbits and other small mammals, giving predators more choice of prey, thus taking some predatory pressure off the chickens. And a few participating ranchers are seeing the rejuvenation of springs once thought to be lost. (Abundant native ground cover slows rainfall runoff, allowing water to seep into the aquifer and recharge the springs.)
Yet another trend which promises to benefit the prairie chickens and other wildlife of the high plains is nature tourism. Panhandle ranchers and landowners are beginning to recognize a modest business opportunity in the public’s growing enthusiasm for wildlife watching. Some ranches even offer lodging, camping, cowboy cookouts, and guided observation trips.
The fate of the remnant shortgrass prairie and the fate of lesser prairie chickens are eternally intertwined. Texas has precious little public land; practically speaking, all wildlife in our state is dependent on privately owned habitat. If the lesser prairie chicken is allowed to flourish once more on the plains, credit for stewardship must go not only to the game management professionals but also to certain visionary landowners.
Austin freelancer Jim Anderson promises to henceforth refrain from comparing wildlife to deceased rock stars.