Prairie Chicken

Last updated: September 9, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff

They inflate their orange neck patches during their mating displays

Prairie Chicken Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Galliformes
Family
Phasianidae
Genus
Tetraonini

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Prairie Chicken Conservation Status

Prairie Chicken Locations

Prairie Chicken Locations

Prairie Chicken Facts

Prey
This species eats leaves, seeds, buds, grains, fruit, acorns, and insects like grasshoppers and crickets
Main Prey
Insects
Name Of Young
Chicks
Group Behavior
  • Flock
  • Pair
Fun Fact
They inflate their orange neck patches during their mating displays
Estimated Population Size
360,000
Biggest Threat
Habitat loss and pollution
Most Distinctive Feature
Orange, circular neck patch
Distinctive Feature
Orange comb feathers and long head feathers
Wingspan
27 to 29 inches
Incubation Period
23 to 25 days
Age Of Independence
3 months
Age Of Fledgling
A few days after hatching
Habitat
Mixed-grass or tallgrass prairies
Diet
Omnivore
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
Favorite Food
Seeds and grains
Type
Bird
Common Name
Prairie chicken
Number Of Species
3
Location
Canada and the United States
Nesting Location
On the ground in brushy grassland

Prairie Chicken Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Orange
Skin Type
Feathers
Top Speed
50 mph
Lifespan
2 to 5 years
Weight
31 to 36 ounces
Length
17 inches
Age of Sexual Maturity
One year

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View all of the Prairie Chicken images!



Males gather on booming grounds to perform their displays in hopes of attracting females.

Prairie chickens are members of the grouse family and are well-known for their unusual mating rituals. Their hollow “booming” sounds and cackles were once familiar in Central America and Eastern North America. But today, their numbers have dwindled significantly, and sightings are rare. These birds have specific habitat requirements, which the agricultural industry has largely decimated. Find out more about these unusual chickens, including where to find them, how they perform their displays, and what threatens them.

5 Amazing Prairie Chicken Facts

  • Prairie chickens have orange circular neck patches they can inflate during mating displays.
  • The best time to view these birds is from late March to early May on their booming grounds.
  • They don’t form pair bonds, and the males do not participate in raising the young. se
  • Females choose their mates depending on who has the longest legs and the best eye combs.
  • This species is “near threatened” due to habitat loss and overhunting.

Where to Find the Prairie Chicken

The prairie chicken lives in the United States and Canada, inhabiting native tallgrass prairies in states like Texas, Kansas, South Dakota, and Nebraska. They once included oak woodlands in their habitat, but now you primarily find them in mixed-grass or tall grass prairie with few trees. They require open areas for foraging and mating displays but need brush cover for nesting and roosting. Look for these birds year-round in the midwest Great Plains and prairies. The best time to see them is from late March to early May when they perform their mating rituals. Most people join clubs or tour groups and sit in a bird hide before dawn. 

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Prairie Chicken Nest

Females select their nesting sites on the ground in brushy grasslands with plenty of vegetation for concealment. She shapes a bowl seven inches wide and almost three inches deep and constructs it using dried grass, leaves, and twigs. She also uses feathers to line the bottom. 

Scientific Name

The prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) belongs to the Galliformes order, which includes heavy-bodied ground-feeding birds. Their Phasianidae family encompasses the most popular game birds, including chickens and turkeys. Its genus, Tmpanuchus, is a small group of birds from the grouse family referred to as prairie chickens. This bird has three subspecies: the greater prairie chicken (Tetrao cupido), the heath hen (extinct), and the Attwater’s prairie chicken (endangered).

Size, Appearance, and Behavior

Prairie chickens are stocky, medium-sized birds that resemble chickens. They have round wings, short tails, small heads, and short legs. These birds are more prominent than a grouse but smaller than a pheasant. They measure close to 17 inches long, weigh between 31 and 36 ounces, and have a wingspan of 27 to 29 inches. Prairie chickens are a mottled brown with orange comb feathers over their eyes and long head feathers they can raise or lower. They also have an orange, circular neck patch they can inflate. Females are smaller and lack orange neck patches and comb feathers. 


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These birds often stroll through their habitats, pecking at the ground for seeds and grains. But they are also strong fliers and will travel miles between their roosting and feeding sites. Males assemble in a small area called “leks” or “booming grounds” come early spring. Their ritualized mating system consists of males guarding small territories and performing displays, even fighting one another to gain a female’s attention. These rituals are strictly for mating, not forming pair bonds. After the breeding season, these grouse gather in flocks during the fall. These birds can fly up to 50 mph.

Male greater prairie chicken performing courtship display
Prairie chickens, like this male greater prairie chicken, have short legs, small heads, short tails, and round wings.

Danita Delimont/Shutterstock.com

Diet

Prairie chickens are primarily herbivores that feed on various plant matter.

What Does the Prairie Chicken Eat?

This species eats leaves, seeds, buds, grains, fruit, acorns, and insects like grasshoppers and crickets. They forage on the ground and occasionally climb trees to find berries, buds, and leaves. Their young primarily eat insects.

Predators, Threats, and Conservation Status

The IUCN lists the prairie chicken as “near threatened,” a slight improvement from its 2016 “vulnerable” status. This species has had rapid declines in its population, disappearing entirely from many states. Its main threats include habitat loss from urbanization and the agricultural industry. This prairie bird is also sensitive to pollution and invasive species. Hunters have targeted this bird for game, and it continues to be a problem today.  

What Eats the Prairie Chicken?

The prairie chicken’s most common predators, especially to its nests, include snakes, skunks, coyotes, raccoons, red foxes, crows, badgers, and ground squirrels. Adult birds fall victim to coyotes and birds of prey like hawks and owls.

Reproduction, Young, and Molting

Males gather on their “booming grounds” during the spring and perform their displays, which include dancing, expanding their bright orange sacs, stomping their feet, vocalizing, and participating in standoffs with other males. Females choose those with the best eye combs, longest legs, and the best territories nearest the booming grounds. They do not form pair bonds, and males are strictly for breeding; they have no role in raising young. Females lay anywhere from seven to 17 eggs and incubate from 23 to 25 days. The young are relatively independent and follow their mother a few days after hatching. While they can find food and fly after a few weeks, they stay with their mothers for around three months. They reach sexual maturity by one year old, and their average lifespan is between two and five years.

Population

The prairie chicken population is estimated at 360,000 mature individuals. This species’ numbers are increasing annually by 7.79% but may have a slight decline in subpopulations. The positive short-term trends result from conservation actions like translocations, habitat restoration, and local hunting bans.

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About the Author

Niccoy is a professional writer and content creator focusing on nature, wildlife, food, and travel. She graduated Kappa Beta Delta from Florida State College with a business degree before realizing writing was her true passion. She lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and enjoys hiking, reading, and cooking!

Prairie Chicken FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What is another name for a prairie chicken?

Prairie chickens are also called “boomers.”

Where do prairie chickens live?

The prairie chicken lives in the United States and Canada, inhabiting native tallgrass prairies.

What happened to the prairie chickens?

This species has had rapid declines in its population, disappearing entirely from many states. Its main threats include habitat loss from urbanization and the agricultural industry.

Can prairie chickens fly?

Prairie chickens are strong fliers and will travel miles between their roosting and feeding sites.

Is a prairie chicken a pheasant?

They are from the same family (Phasianidae) but prairie chickens are smaller with shorter tails.

How much land do prairie chickens need?

Prairie chickens need at least 30,000 acres of tallgrass prairies.

Do prairie chickens lays eggs?

Yes! Prairie chickens lay anywhere from seven to seventeen eggs during the breeding season.

Sources
  1. IUCN Red List, Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22679514/177901079
  2. JSTOR, Available here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3798492
  3. Wiley Online Library , Available here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.2981/wlb.2000.027
  4. University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, Available here: https://agronomy.unl.edu/research/range-pasture-forages/Wildlife-Habitat/Management-of-Sandhills-Rangelands-for-Greater%20Prairie-chickens.pdf
  5. Natural Resources Conservation Service, Available here: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs143_010041.pdf

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