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by Bob Gillespie, Prairie Ridge State Natural Area
August 16, 2014

From a population of 10 millions birds in 1860, only about 62 Greater Prairie Chickens were known to exist in Illinois in 2014. The Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido), also known as the pinnated grouse or boomer, was listed as an Illinois endangered species in 1977.

The dramatic decline in the Greater Prairie Chicken (GPC) population is due to the loss of habitat as a result of agricultural land use changes beginning with the coming of the steel mold board plow followed by intensive farming practices to the present day, the installation of drainage tiles, exploitation by market hunters from the early l900's to the closing of the hunting season in 1933 and extensive residential and commercial development in recent years. As a result, the GPC population plummeted to the point of extirpation on the Illinois southern till plain by the l940's. Increasing fragmented habitat and isolated small declining populations of the GPC causes genetic inbreeding and results in poor health and low survival rates for newly hatched chicks.

Current (dark green) and historic range (light and dark green) of the Greater Prairie Chicken (Simon Pierre Barrette)

An iconic grassland bird of the prairie, the historic range of the GPC occurred on 21 million acres of Illinois prior to European settlement. GPC also relied upon oak savannas and forested areas for habitat. As these wooded lands fell to timbering, more GPC habitat and food sources were lost.

GPC are also threatened by human interactions and ring-neck pheasants which compete with the GPC for breeding grounds and often confiscate GPC nests. GPC can survive cold and heavy snows but spring rains which cause muddy breeding grounds and strong hail storms threaten the young chicks.

The GPC is known for its elaborate breeding and courtship behavior. They are territorial birds and do not migrate. The males are known to defend their leks or booming grounds vigorously and to fight competing males to breed with the flock of females.

GPC prefer leks which have very short or no vegetation. The males arrive on the leks in March to claim their territories. The females arrive in April and the breeding season begins. Mating performances begin in the twilight before dawn until the breeding season ends in June.

Fighting Greater Prairie Chickens Photo by Dominic Sherony.

The males perform elaborate displays to attract females. One or two of the most dominant males do most of the mating. Males inflate air sacs located on the sides of their necks, stomp their feet, fan out their tail feathers, leap sporadically into the air and enter into a frenzy of activity to attract females. This activity continues to take place throughout the breeding season. During breeding displays, males expand their orange esophageal air sacs and make three note booming calls which sound like air being blown over a jug and can be heard a mile away. Both males and females have elongated feathers on the sides of their neck, called pinnae, which appear formidable during the male's mating dance as he thumps around the lek and courts as many females as possible.

In all of modern America, there is no more lost, plaintive, old-time sound than the booming of a native prairie-chicken, wrote John Madson in his tribute to tall grass prairie. Where the Sky Began.

After mating takes place, the females move about a mile away from the booming grounds and begin to build their nests. Hens lay about 12 eggs per clutch, one egg each day. The eggs take about 24 days to hatch. The young are raised by the hen and fledge in one to four weeks. The chicks then follow their mother as she leaves the nest to forage for food. They are independent at age 10 to 12 weeks. GPC chicks are mature in a year.

GPC eat leaves, buds, fruits, seeds and insects. Males and females are brown, creamy tan and black and their legs are feathered to their toes. They have sharp yellow talons. Males weigh about 2 to 2 l/2 pounds. Females are smaller. Adults can fly up to seven miles. GPC can live to be 5 to 6 years old.

The Prairie Ridge State Natural Area is one of the best sites in Illinois to observe GPC and other grassland birds and wildlife. Management of the area includes developing grassland plant communities of grasses and native prairie species. Wetland communities have also been constructed to provide habitat for GPC and other threatened and endangered species.

The Greater Prairie Chicken Recovery Project

Greater Prairie Chickens in the Flint Hills (Greg Kramos, USFWS)

The recovery of the GPC in Illinois depends upon establishing and managing critical habitat and translocation of birds to Illinois from similar genetic backgrounds and nearby locations to invigorate local dwindling populations and alleviate genetic inbreeding.

On March 18, 2014, wildlife biologists left Illinois to make arrangements for the translocation of 50 males and 50 females from the Smokey Hills of Kansas GPC breeding grounds. 50 males and 41 females were captured in 2014 as part of a three year project to invigorate Illinois' diminished GPC population in time for the spring breeding season which begins about April 7th.

The 91 trapped prairie chickens were weighed and given blood tests, health exams and identity tags. Special individual cages were built to safely transport each bird from Kansas to Illinois. The chickens were transported in two state-owed Cessna airplanes from Salina, Kansas to the Jasper County section of the Prairie Ridge State Natural Area leaving from the airport to arrive in Illinois as quickly as possible.

At dawn on April 12th, the birds arrived at the Prairie Ridge booming grounds. They could hear the Illinois GPC calling and tramping around the lek outside their cages. As the cage doors were carefully opened, the excited Kansas chickens wasted no time in running out to scurry around the Illinois booming ground. The Illinois and Kansas chickens adapted to each other right away and some integrated mating occurred to the delight of the Illinois wildlife biologists videotaping and recording the historic moment.

The Kansas arrivals were carefully monitored and their locations and movements recorded as they scattered about the lek and later relocated to habitat areas.

Some newly hatched chicks showed mixed genetic traits, tracing their parentage to either Illinois or Kansas mothers or Illinois or Kansas fathers.

The recovery of the Greater Prairie Chicken in Illinois is definitely a labor of love for biologists who spend countless hours tracking the chicks and adults and keeping records of their survival and location.

The Spring 2014 relocation project is a hopeful sign that the integration of Illinois and Kansas GPC is working and may hold the key to saving the GPC in Illinois from extinction. But more work and translocations are needed next year and thereafter to carry on the project and ensure that the GPC in Illinois will survive.

For more information about the GPC, go to:
Illinois Wildlife Action Plan

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