The Lesser Prairie Chicken is an artist; the vanishing short grass prairie is his stage. He’s definitely in the underground music scene. You would never recognize his nondescript hang out unless you were a Lesser Prairie Chicken. A slightly raised area with minimal vegetation is his ancestral dancing ground, otherwise known as a “lekk”. Each dawn in Spring, he begins by sounding his own drumroll: stamping his feet on the ground. Then his dance ensues, coupled with a love song he wrote for the many special ladies in attendance. His neon orange eyebrows puffed up, his neck feathers erected, and his ruby colored throat sacs inflated, his dance begins, a combination of feet stomping, head bobbing, and booming (sounds made by pumping air in and out of throat sacs). This is not a solo act. The lekk is crowded with males. Each has a unique dance, and each is seeking to upstage all others. It is difficult to stay focused when he must pause his dance every few seconds to spar with another male, but he must keep his composure. He is auditioning for the role of a lifetime: father. And, if he gives a worthy performance, he might even be cast by multiple females. A few bad reviews or rejections will not get him down, though. He will be back at the lekk tomorrow, and every morning for the next few weeks, presenting his encore show.
Alex Eberts, Macauley Library
Despite weighing no more than a few pounds, Lesser Prairie Chickens were at one time an iconic part of the Southern Great Plains. A member of the Grouse family, Lesser Prairie Chickens formerly enjoyed a range spanning north Texas, eastern New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado, although about 85% of that range has been lost to human activity. LPC’s can now be found in a few isolated communities dotted around northwestern Oklahoma, northwestern Texas, and northern New Mexico. While the LPC has been a candidate for the Threatened Species List since 1998, political and economic controversy has stymied its protection. Since the LPC requires immense amounts of undisturbed short-grass prairie or well-managed ranch land, conservation efforts have been long viewed as mutually exclusive with energy and development interests. For example, in an extraordinary move, the LPC was awarded threatened status in 2014, but this was revoked almost immediately when multiple federal judges in New Mexico and Texas nullified the protection in court. Ever since, status for the LPC has been in question.
People themselves are not the risk to the LPC, after all, the Lesser Prairie Chicken coexisted with the people of the Southern Great Plains for thousands of years in excellent number. However, the technological innovations and reckless development of humanity within the last 150 years or so is where the issue lies. The greatest threat to LPC’s is development, as they require huge swathes of native prairie. Another threat is fire. Climate change and unbridled fire suppression have led to more horrific fires around the world than ever before, and the Southern Great Plains are no exception. Because populations of LPC’s live so remote from each other, should a fire destroy the lekking site or habitat for any given population, any LPC’s that survive a fire find themselves short on resources with nowhere to go. Another issue is wind turbines. The Lesser Prairie Chicken is not crashing into them, rather the LPC has extreme aversion to any shadow casting structure. This is an evolutionary advantage to protect LPC from birds of prey perched and watching.
The Lesser Prairie Chicken is a bird with specific needs and boundless personality. They are a national treasure that one can not help but fall in love with.
Want to learn more?
If you want to learn more about this fascinating bird and its ardently humorous rituals, be sure to check out these resources!
Grouse: This is a podcast available on most Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and most platforms. It follows the conservation story of a lesser prairie chicken relative up north, the Greater Sage Grouse in Washington State. Ashley Ahearn shares her story as a city journalist turned Sage Grouse enthusiast as she interviews everyone who knows this bird best including a Northern Paiute elder, ranchers, conservationists, professors, and energy executives. This 8-episode podcast will leave you wanting more!