Common Names — Prairie grouse, prairie hen, chicken, pinnated grouse
chickens include two species of interest to hunters: the greater prairie
chicken (Tympanuchus cupido)
and the lesser prairie chicken (Tyrnpanuchus
the species are so similar, they are included together in this
The prairie chicken is distinguished from other grouse by the male’s long neck feathers, calledpinnae, which become erect and resemble horns during the elaborate courting display. The bird’s plumage is barred with beige and brown. The tail is short and rounded.
In males, the tail is barred across the center feathers only and has a black terminal band. In females, the tail is barred across the full width. The terminal band is not as dark, and the pinnae are barely noticeable. Juveniles resemble adults by fall.
Greater and lesser prairie chickens can be distinguished by their size and by the appearance of the gular sacs and pinnae. The greater prairie chicken, the more widespread species, has bright yellow gular sacs. The lesser is a smaller bird, with pale pink gular sacs and shorter pinnae.
Size— Adult greater prairie chickens measure 16 to 19 inches long and weigh 2 1/4 to 3 pounds; adult lessers, 15 to 17 inches and 1 1/2 to 2 pounds.
Habitat— Greater prairie chickens are found in the tall-grass and mixed-grass prairies of the Midwest and the northern and central plains. Lesser prairie chickens inhabit the arid, short grass prairies in Kansas, New Mexico, and the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles.
Movement— Strong flyers, prairie chickens may travel up to 30 miles in search of wintering grounds with a reliable food source.
Food Habits— Small grains, such as wheat, soybeans, milo, sorghum and corn, are primary foods. The birds also eat alfalfa and the seeds and leaves of various prairie plants. Prairie chickens sometimes travel several miles between their grassland roosts and feeding grounds — flying out to feed before dawn, returning to their roosts for much of the day, then feeding again an hour or two before sunset.
Breeding— The prairie chicken is known for its spectacular courting display. The male dances and struts with his head low, wings held stiffly at his sides, pinnae flared and gular sacs inflated. He may also jump and flutter his wings. The male’s booming call resonates through the gular sacs and can be heard a mile away, explaining why the courting areas are also called booming grounds. One dominant male breeds with most of the females.
Hens nest near the booming grounds. The greater prairie chicken hen lays 7 to 13 olive eggs with small brown spots in a depression in thick grass. The lesser hen lays 10 to 14 cream-colored eggs in a nest constructed at the base of a shrub. The eggs hatch in about 25 days.
Social Interaction— Birds stay in their family groups into fall, and gather in packs of up to 200 birds on the wintering grounds.
Population— Declining. Although six states have huntable populations, the prairie chicken’s range has been vastly reduced as prairie grasslands were converted to agricultural use. However, the birds have been reintroduced into some areas of the northern Midwest.
Hunting Strategies— Early in the season, hunters comb grasslands with wide-ranging pointers. As the season progresses and the birds get more elusive, the best strategy is to pass-shoot from a blind set up between roosting and feeding areas. The birds often fly in to feed before sunrise, so start hunting early.
Eating Quality— Fair; the meat of the prairie chicken is very dark.