22 Sep 2020

The Greater Prairie-chicken: playing chicken with extinction

Despite being over-hunted to the brink of extinction, this flamboyant member of the grouse family may now be starting to recover. Discover its turbulent history of changing fortunes.

Greater Prairie-chickens lekking © Rob Palmer Photography / Shutterstock
By Jessica Law

Imagine you’re walking across the North American prairies when you hear a haunting, resonant wailing sound echoing across the plains. You could be forgiven for mistaking it for a wolf’s howl, human singing, or even a musical instrument. Follow the sound towards an elevated stretch of short grass, however, and you’ll see that its true source is even more improbable: large, grouse-like birds squaring off against each other, raising twin crests like rabbits’ ears, and inflating sacs the colour and shape of tangerines on either side of their necks – the source of the unearthly “booming” sound they use to attract females.

Today, an encounter with a Greater Prairie-chicken Tympanuchus cupido (Vulnerable) is a rare and extraordinary experience. The species used to be a common sight across North America and Canada, numbering in the millions in the 1830s in the state of Illinois alone. But by the 1930s, this flamboyant member of the grouse family was teetering on the brink of extinction. During the space of a single century, vast swathes of prairie habitat had been swallowed up by farmland, and the species was drastically over-hunted for sport, leaving it hemmed into just a few small patches of managed grassland in the midwestern USA.

Such a dramatic drop in numbers meant a great deal of genetic diversity was lost, further reducing the birds’ health and breeding success. The species is also a victim of more indirect impacts stemming from hunting: the non-native Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus, introduced for shooting, competes with the Greater Prairie-chicken for food and habitat. They even lay their eggs in the prairie-chickens’ nests. The pheasant’s chicks hatch first and leave the nest after just a few hours, causing the prairie-chicken to believe she has successfully raised her young, and abandon her own, unhatched eggs.

Despite this bleak outlook, the results of the North American Breeding Bird Survey suggest its population might now be slowly increasing, although this trend varies region by region. This heartening change of fortune may be a result of the conservation action underway to safeguard the species. Protected areas and limits on livestock grazing are allowing the prairie to spring up again, and conservationists have tried translocating birds to reduce inbreeding. This, combined with stricter hunting legislation, could mean this species has stared extinction in the face and will live to tell the tale.