Endangered Species Handbook

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Grasslands, Shrublands, Deserts

Drylands of the World: NORTH AMERICA: Page 7

     One of the most characteristic birds of shortgrass prairie is the Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido).  These spectacular birds measure about 16 to 18 inches long, with elegant brown-and-white striated plumage.  Males have a large yellow comb of bare skin above the eyes and, during a courtship display for the drab female, he expands bright yellowish-orange skin pouches or sacs on the sides of his neck and raises horn-like feathers on the top of his head, while stamping his feet.  The pouches amplify his vocalizations, a series of booming calls; he simultaneously snaps his tail in fanning movements (Johnsgard 1983).  Groups of male prairie chickens gather on bare ground, known as a "lek" area, and display for the benefit of females; males also "flutter-jump," leaping off the ground with wings spread out, often while whooping, cackling or issuing whining calls.  Their courtship displays are among the most dramatic prairie spectacles.  Greater Prairie Chickens have disappeared from the majority of their original range, with one subspecies extinct and two others highly endangered.
 
     Attwater's Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido attwateri), native to coastal prairies of eastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana, verges on extinction; in spite of recovery efforts that began in the 1970s, these birds total less than 68 in the wild (Anon. 1995).  Historically, their population may have numbered 1 million birds in this region, but grasslands in this area have been destroyed by agriculture and development since the early 1900s. Efforts by the Fish and Wildlife Service to increase populations have included the establishment of Attwater's Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge and, more recently, the 3,000-acre Galveston Bay Coastal Prairie Preserve in east Texas, which will be co-administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy (Anon. 1995). As recently as 1993, 456 Attwater's Prairie Chickens survived, but declines were noted at that time (Anon. 1993).  Captive-breeding populations at four sites totaled 35 adults and 65 young in 1995, and some were released at the Attwater's Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge.
 
     The remaining subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken, Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus, is extinct, or nearly so, in 15 U.S. states and Canadian provinces, but legally hunted in four states.  These birds suffered great declines in the past from market hunting, and hunting can decimate populations.  In the 20th century, these birds lost much of their habitat to agriculture, and pesticides kill their chicks.  Their distribution has become localized and fragmented, along with the undisturbed prairie which is their prime habitat. 
 
     Two grouse of the prairies have been listed as Special Concern by the National Audubon Society.  The Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus), a close relative of the prairie chicken, resembles them except the male has a purple air sac in display and lacks the horn-like head feathers.  This bird has a more northerly range than the latter species, living in brushy prairies, open bogs, or abandoned farmland from Illinois and Kansas north to Alaska (Farrand 1983).  It has disappeared from much of the southern portion of its range as a result of overhunting, overgrazing, and conversion of native grasslands to agriculture (Ehrlich et al. 1992). 


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