The Greater Prairie Chicken: Chicken play with extinction

Imagine walking the North American prairies when you hear a haunting, resonant howl echoing across the plains. It could be forgiven for mistaking it for the howl of a wolf, human singing, or even a musical instrument. Follow the sound towards an elevated short stretch of grass, however, and you’ll see that its true source is even less likely: large, capercaillie-like birds huddling together, twin combs raised like rabbit ears, and sacks inflating the color and shape of tangerines on both sides of their necks – the source of the unearthly “booming” noise with which they attract women.

Today an encounter with a Greater Prairie Chicken Tympanuchus cupido (Vulnerable) is a rare and extraordinary experience. The species was a common sight in North America and Canada, numbering millions in the state of Illinois alone by the 1830s. But by the 1930s, this flamboyant member of the grouse family was on the verge of extinction. Within a single century, much of the prairie habitat had been swallowed up by farmland and the species was drastically overhunted for sport, leaving it trapped in only a few small patches of cultivated grassland in the American Midwest.

Such a dramatic decrease in numbers meant that much of the genetic diversity was lost, further reducing the health and breeding success of the birds. The species is also a victim of more indirect effects of hunting: the alien pheasant Phasianus colchicus, introduced to shooting, competes with the Greater Prairie Chicken for food and habitat. They even lay their eggs in the prairie chickens’ nests. The pheasant chicks hatch first and leave the nest after just a few hours, leading the prairie chicken to believe that they successfully raised their young, leaving behind their own unhatched eggs.

Greater Prairie Chicken, Copyright Andrew Spencer, from the Surfbirds Galleries

Despite this dire outlook, the results of the North American breeding bird survey suggest that the population is now slowly increasing, although this trend varies from region to region. This encouraging change in happiness may be the result of ongoing conservation efforts to protect the species. Protected areas and restrictions on livestock grazing are resurrecting the prairie, and conservationists have sought to relocate birds to reduce inbreeding. Coupled with stricter hunting legislation, this could mean that this species is critically endangered and will live to see history.


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