Greater Prairie Chicken Management
by Gerald J. Horak and Roger D. Applegate
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Gerald J. Horakis Wildlife Biologist in the Wildlife Section, and Roger D. Applegate is Small Game Coordinator in the Research and Survey Office of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, Emporia, KS 66801. This publication is a contribution of Kansas Federal Aid PR Projects W-23-R, W-42-R, FW-9-P, and W-39-R (1962-1996). R. Johnson provided valuable technical assistance with the preparation of this report. D. Applegate edited the text, Page 12-13 photo by Tom Eddy.
Greater Prairie Chicken Management
by Gerald J. Horak and Roger D. Applegate
Populations of the greater prairie chicken in Kansas have been steadily declining for the past 30 years, according to surveys by the Department of Wildlife and Parks (Figure 1). These declines have been most evident in eastern Kansas. Populations in the Flint Hills have remained relatively stable during this period. Numbers of greater prairie chickens in north central Kansas have increased locally in the past ten years.
WHAT IS A GREATER PRAIRIE CHICKEN?
The greater prairie chicken, scientific name Tympanuchus cupido, is shown on the cover. It can be distinguished from the lesser prairie chicken, Tympanuchus pallidicinctus, shown in Figure 2 since it is slightly smaller and lighter in color. The lesser prairie chicken has red rather than orange skin covering the air sacs at the neck. Also, the yellow combs over the eyes are larger than in greater prairie chickens. Their sounds are more a short "gobble" than a long "booming."
Figure 1. Fluctuations in greater prairie chicken populations per square mile.
The greater prairie chicken is a species that does best in tallgrass prairies with a mix of 75% grassland and 25% cropland. Prairie chickens will survive in areas with less grassland, such as 50% grassland and 50% crops. And they can live in blocks of total grassland if the grass in these areas is properly managed.
In Kansas, greater prairie chickens inhabit diverse areas from the mid-grass prairie, found in the north central part of the state, to the seeded tame grass areas in the southeast. But their stronghold is the native tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills. Our studies have shown that prairie chickens are adaptable and can be managed by furnishing a grassland habitat that provides for their daily and seasonal requirements. To fulfill these conditions, a landowner must adopt or encourage the use of grassland management practices that provide the best grass for chicken populations, yet are compatible with a productive livestock operation. Tools used by the grassland manager that are adaptable to good prairie chicken and livestock management include burning, grazing, and fencing.
This booklet describes the needs of prairie chickens for maintaining a healthy wild population. Landowners can review these habitat practices and mange their field accordingly. Prairie chickens will use most of the habitats found in a grazed tallgrass prairie, from the lightly grazed areas for nesting to overgrazed areas for booming grounds. Proper proportions and a mixture of grazing pressure is the goal of the manager. Grassland areas that prairie chickens can walk through, see over, hide in, and feed from, will provide the necessary requirements to perpetuate their populations. With declining chicken populations in parts of the Kansas range, it is necessary for landowners to make extra effort to maintain suitable habitat. Otherwise, we may never see population levels similar to those in the past.
To understand this unique bird's living requirements, it is important to understand its special mating and nesting behavior, and how the hens shelter and move their broods. It is also necessary to be able to classify the characteristics of prairie rangeland.
Figure 2. The lesser prairie chicken differs from
the greater prairie chicken; compare this with the front cover.
Male prairie chickens attract their mates by "booming," a process where the male inflates the air sacs on each side of its neck, erects the pinnae on the back of the neck, and stamp its feet. The "booming" sound made by the prairie chickens has been described as resembling the sound made when blowing over the neck of the bottle, and can be heard up to two miles on calm mornings.
Preferred booming ground sites, also known as "leks," are located on elevated, droughty, shortgrass land such as hilltops or ridges, often the tallest point for at least 0.04 kilometers (one-fourth mile). Grounds can be overgrazed hilltops, saltlicks, trails, rocky shallow ridges, or cultivated lands. Wheat fields are used as booming grounds, but chickens abandon these grounds late in the mating season due to the heavy growth of wheat.
Booming grounds are typically 0.8 to 2.0 hectares (2 to 5 acres) in size and are used year-after-year. Permanent booming grounds can be economically established by developing a salt lick along a ridge. Cattle coming to the salt lick trample and overuse the vegetation. In addition, the salt leaches into the soil, permanently killing plants.
Prairie chicken activity on stable booming grounds occurs during all but two months of the year: July and August. Maintaining this ground year-around is therefore important. Ideally, booming grounds are best located in areas where at least 75% of the surrounding habitat is pastureland. This grassland should be in good to excellent range condition (pages 12-14) and not less than 130 hectares (one-half section or 320 acres) in size. Vegetation on the booming grounds should not exceed 5 cm (2 inches) in eight. In a rangeland habitat, booming grounds normally are no closer than 0.8 kilometers (one-half mile) apart.
If grassland is limited (below a 50:50 ratio with cropland) booming grounds can be established on cultivated fields. However, at least 32 hectares (80 acres) of nesting cover in well-managed pastureland must be within 0.4 kilometers (one-fourth mile). When rangeland is limited and interspersed with cropland, booming grounds may occur as close as 0.4 kilometers (one-fourth mile) apart. With the diversification of grassland management and crop rotation on these grassland/cropland areas, the number and location of booming grounds are less stable and often move as the habitat changes. If pastures are overgrazed or otherwise mismanaged, booming grounds and prairie chicken populations will decline and eventually disappear.
During the spring mating season, a drastic change in habitat may occur because of burning. Burning has little effect on the displaying males but may cause females to shift to other grounds near unburned grassland that provides suitable nesting habitat. Burning is necessary to maintain a tallgrass prairie but should be done only every three to four years on a pasture rotation basis; that is, burning one-third to one-fourth of an area each year. Generally, burning for best prairie chicken management occurs after early April, about the same time as first nest initiation. This will cause some nest losses, but hens will renest. If pasture burning is rotated annually, suitable habitat will be available for subsequent nesting. In the long run, this type of burning benefits prairie chicken populations.
Prairie chicken booming and mating behavior can easily be observed during the spring. About any type of blind that conceals one's movement can be established (Figure 3). One should keep in mind that blinds will attract cattle and thus interfere with the prairie chickens. Ideally, blinds should be in pastures without cattle. Steer pastures work well because steers are usually not put into pastures until mid-May after peak booming activity.
Figure 3. An example of blind for viewing prairie chicken behavior.
BOOMING GROUND SURVEY
Counts of displaying males on a booming ground are not a good indicator of prairie chicken populations. Numbers of males on a booming ground at any one time vary considerably during the survey period in mid-March to mid-April, the peak of booming activity. Variation also occurs in the number of males using a ground during any given morning. Variations are the result on non-territorial males visiting these grounds, since the number of males occupying territories often will not vary from year to year. During years of high population densities, the number of non-territorial males will reflect this increase. Trying to establish territories, these non-territorial cocks utilized numerous grounds. Thus on a given morning, a non-territorial bird might visit more than one ground. This movement accounts for the variation in the number of males using a ground during any specific period. When populations of non-territorial males are high, and they are continually harassed away from permanent booming grounds, these males often establish temporary grounds and set up their own territories. These grounds are established later than normal and used sporadically during the booming season. Large fluctuations in the number of males using these grounds are common. When populations decrease, these temporary grounds disappear. Non-territorial male disturbance on permanent grounds decreases as the population continues to decline. A natural population low occurs when grounds are occupied by territorial males on permanent grounds. If the number of males continues to decline and permanent grounds disappear, the population is declining because of adverse land-use changes and not due to natural population fluctuations.
Booming ground counts provide an indicator of prairie chicken populations, but not a percent change from year to year. Counts are an indicator of an increasing, decreasing or static populations over a period of years. Survey areas should be at least 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) in size, with counts conducted in mid-March through mid-April from one-half hour before to one-half hour after sunrise. Variations in the number of booming grounds over a series of years furnish an indication of population trends. An increase in the number of grounds reflects an increase in population, whereas a decrease in the number of booming grounds denotes a population decline. Healthy populations are indicated when the number of males on established grounds show seasonal or yearly fluctuations but no long-term decrease (see Figure 1).
When managing large expanses of rangeland such as the Flint Hills, allowing prime nesting habitat to occupy approximately 15% of the area provides optimum conditions for prairie chickens. A minimum of 32 hectares (80 acres) of this nesting habitat should be within 0.4 kilometers (one-fourth mile) of a booming ground. Nesting habitat should be scattered throughout pastures of good to excellent range condition. This contrast between sparse vegetation on booming grounds and heavy vegetation needed for nesting is the extreme in vegetation density utilized by the prairie chicken.
Nest initiation occurs during the height of courtship activities in mid-April. After egg laying and incubation, the young hatch during the last part of May and into early June.
Nests are usually located on north and west facing slopes of well-drained terrain generally having less than 20% slope. Visible changes in habitat, such as trails, fencerows, or vegetation differences, provide nest sites. Nests are constructed on the edge of heavy cover. This allows adults to move easily to and from the nest and permits young to quickly leave the vicinity of the nest after hatching.
When nesting begins in mid-April, dry or residual vegetation from the previous growing season must be available for nest construction. However, there is an upper limit of accumulated residual that will be tolerated by prairie chickens searching for nest sites. In well-managed pastures, this limit is usually reached after four or five growing seasons. Again, this points out the importance of burning every three to four years. Nests are built in either natural ground depressions scratched out by the hen. Fine grass material placed in these depressions completes the nest. Surrounding vegetation must be tall and dense to provide hen concealment from ground and avian predators. The preferred height of nesting vegetation is about 38 centimeters (15 inches), but nests have been found in grass as short as 10 centimeters (4 inches) and as tall as 97 centimeters (38 inches).
Nests are found in a wide variety of vegetation types, from wheat and alfalfa fields to both cool- and warm-season grasses. The main ingredient is that a hen must be able to move easily on and off the nest and lead her young from the area soon after hatching. The species of vegetation is not as important as the architecture it produces.
To provide prime nesting conditions, two management techniques can be used: 1) moderate to light grazing to maintain the proper height and density of vegetation and create edges; and 2) burning every three to four years to create nesting cover. If occasional burning is not done on moderately grazed pastures, the residual growth will reach a density discouraging hen use.
A good technique is to control burn only a third of the pastures every year. Because cattle prefer recently-burned areas, entire grazing units should be burned. Burning large pastures often leaves a number of unburned areas. These areas are usually of low quality for nest sites although hens may utilize them for lack of better areas. If these "islands" of grass are small, predators concentrate their feeding activity in them. In large grazing units where a complete burn occurs, prairie chicken populations will be adversely affected due to the complete lack of nesting habitat. These situations can be altered by back-firing potential nesting habitat (at least 32 hectare or 80 acre blocks) located in the vicinity of the booming grounds.
Quality nesting cover is of primary importance. However, the quantity and dispersion of this cover is also important. When the quality and quantity of habitat is limited by intensive agricultural use, overgrazing, or extensive annual burning, nesting hens will concentrate in smaller areas. Due to this overcrowding, they become susceptible to increased predation and nest desertion. The end result is lower production and reduced population levels.
Weather plays an important role in annual nesting success. Heavy rains and cool weather in the spring cause nest destruction and desertion. Of course, weather is one element that cannot be controlled, but knowledge of its effects can help explain population increases or decreases.
Figure 4. Next of greater prairie chicken.
Prairie chicken brood habitat consists of the grassland niche between the short grasses of the booming ground and the heavy cover of nest sites.
After hatching, the hen and young leave the vicinity of the nest as soon as the young are dry. Hens move their broods to vegetation sufficiently sparse for the young to move about but dense enough to provide shelter from the hot summer sun and from predators.
Broods utilize a diverse habitat to live. During the cooler part of the day, young prefer open areas such as trails, overgrazed areas, and cattle rubs; but stay close to taller vegetation for escape cover. These areas of grass overutilization allow easy movement and keep the young out of early morning and evening dew. During the midday, forbs provide an overhead canopy that shades out grass growth and direct sunlight creating the ideal habitat for broods. Shallow range sites where soils are poor and the substrate favors short forb growth with minimal grass cover are preferred brood habitat. Forb-grass habitats also provide numerous niches for high insect populations - the primary food of young prairie chickens.
Young prefer habitat created by moderate grazing of pastures in good condition. This provides the necessary brood habitat because the plant diversity, livestock paths and small areas of reduced sparse cover permit the easy movement of birds. This variability also encourages higher insect populations. Burning every three to four years is a necessary management tool for maintenance of brood habitat on this type of range.
In cropland/grassland areas, broods will use the grassland and cropfield borders. Edges of row crops, alfalfa fields, or abandoned lands can provide excellent prairie chicken brood habitat. Good insect populations and overhead vegetative canopy with little residual ground cover are the benefit of these fields. Cool season pastures are sometimes used if they offer a habitat of grasses and forbs that allow easy brood movement and provide protective cover.
A forb is any herbaceous plant that is not a grass. Examples are sunflowers, compassplant, and wild indigo. Forbs are important because they produce edible seeds and harbor insects that are necessary food for chicks. Forbs also provide shelter for nests and birds alike. Since many forbs have colorful showy flowers, they add beauty to the prairie.
Weather conditions are important both directly and indirectly to young prairie chickens. If heavy rains occur in May and June, many young chickens drown or get chilled and die. Weather affects habitat conditions, thus affecting the young. A wet and cold spring and summer will adversely affect prairie chicken populations. In contrast, a dry and warm spring and summer will have a positive effect on populations.
FALL AND WINTER HABITAT
Good nesting and brood cover also serves as the habitat for fall and winter activities. Generally, prairie chickens utilize rangeland habitat consisting of clump-type grasses, which provide areas of sparse vegetation surrounded by taller grasses. This habitat, averaging 16 centimeters (6 inches) tall, provides vegetation easy to walk through and dense and high enough for concealment.
Roosting areas must be extensive enough to accommodate entire flocks. When a flock moves to a roost site, individuals locate acceptable roost sites a short distance from other birds. Flocks will locate a roosting site and use this area every night but will leave and relocate if disturbed.
Daytime loafing areas are not as confining as night roosts. Habitat needs vary depending on weather conditions. On cold, windy days, heavier cover is utilized while on warmer days thinner, shorter cover is used. Loafing sites often change from day to day because prairie chickens move around searching out food items like green grass, forb seeds, and available insects. In average winters, prairie chickens can survive in open rangeland. However, during times of extended periods of snow cover and cold temperatures, harvested agricultural grain fields are necessary as a supplementary food source.
Providing feed fields for prairie chickens can be an important management tool. These fields serve as a readily available source of high protein foods, and prairie chickens use these fields traditionally. Field feeding starts in October and continues into March. Although field feeding activity is sporadic and may not occur daily, it is generally more consistent during the fall and winter with birds normally coming to grain fields in early morning and late afternoon. During the hunting season, hunters take advantage of this movement and pass shoot birds as they fly to feed. Jump shooting can be effective in September, but as fall progresses, flock size increases making it difficult to get within range for jump shooting. After September, pass shooting is the primary prairie chicken hunting method.
Ideally, grain fields should be in open areas with a minimum size of six hectares (15 acres). Large files containing a variety of row crops with strips of wheat will get the most use. The favored grain of prairie chickens is soybeans, with corn and sorghum also highly preferred. Wheat fields are also used for food during the fall and winter, providing a source of green vegetation. Feeding areas should be close to large pastures to provide good loafing and roosting areas.
In grassland areas, height, density and diversity of vegetation is extremely important in determining quality of prairie chicken habitat. Optimum prairie chicken habitat should consist of the following:
- A 75% grassland, 25% cropland mix.
- Large, moderately grazed pastures providing areas of differential grazing intensity.
- Controlled burning every three to four years to maintain pastures in a desired habitat condition. This retards invasion of woody vegetation, removes accumulated residual, and maintains prairie plant vigor.
- Booming grounds (10% of the area) should be overgrazed providing a turf-like area. Vegetation should not be more than 5 centimeters (2 inches) tall.
- Nesting sites (15% of the area) are associated with tall plants in pasture areas that are lightly grazed. Preferred vegetation height 38 centimeters (15 inches).
- Summer brood and winter loafing and roosting sites (75% of the area) should be moderately grazed leaving medium to tall vegetation.
- Grain fields (a minimum of six hectares or 15 acres) of soybeans, sorghum, or corn will furnish winter feed and provide areas for hunter harvest. Green winter wheat is also utilized.
- Very palatable climax plants that disappear rather quickly under heavy grazing.
Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi)
Little bluestem (Andropogon scoparius)
Indiangrass (Sorghastrum arvenaceum)
Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata)
Eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides)
Canadian wildrye (Elymus canadensis)
Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)
Black sampson echinacea (Echinacea augustifolia)
Prairieclovers (Petalostemon spp.)
Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
Catclaw sensitive brier (Schrankia nuttalli)
Whole-leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium)
Round-head lespedeza (Lespedeza capitata)
Pitchersage (Salvia azurea)
Gayfeather (Lieatris spp.)
Tickclover (Desmodium spp.)
Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis)
Lead plant (Amorpha canescens)
New Jersey tea (Ceanothus herbaceus)
Prairie rose (Rosa arkansana)
- Climax plants that increase for a while under heavy grazing but finally disappear under continual heavy grazing.
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)
Tall dropseed (Sporobolus asper)
Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis)
Hairy grama (Bouteloua hirsuta)
Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides)
Western wheatgrass (Agropyron smithii)
Panicgrass (Panicum spp.)
Purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis)
Stonyhills muhly (Muhlenbergia cuspidata)
Sedge (Carex spp.)
Pricklypear (Opuntia polyacantha)
Inland ironweed (Vernonia baldwini)
Slimflower scurf-pea (Psoralea tenuiflora)
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)
Wild indigo (Baptisia spp.)
Western ragweed (Ambrosia psilostachya)
Parthenium (Parthenium spp.)
Willowleaved sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius)
Aromatic sumac (Rhus aromatica)
Buckbrush (Symphoricarpos occidentalis)
Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra)
Grayleaf dogwood (Garrya wrightii)
Blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica)
Post oak (Quercus stellata)
- Plant species that move into an area as a result of change in grassland composition due to overgrazing, lack of fire, etc.
Tumblegrass (Schedonnardus paniculatus)
Windmillgrass (Chloris spp.)
Foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum)
Common pricklypear (Opuntia spp.)
Prairie threeawn (Aristida spp.)
Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis)
Broomweed (Gutierrezia dracunculoides)
Gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa)
Osage orange (Maclura pomifera)
A less common practice is to locate birds feeding in the field and attempt to flush them in order to get a shot. This is referred to as jump shooting because the hunter "jumps" the birds in order to get them to fly.
The common prairie chicken hunting method in Kansas is to shoot birds while they are flying into the fields. This is called pass shooting because the hunter is shooting birds as they pass over on their way into the field.
Allred, B.D. 1950. Practical Grassland Management. Sheep and Goat Raiser Magazine. San Angelo, TX. 307 pages.
Baker, Maurice F. 1953. Prairie Chickens of Kansas. State Biological Survey Miscellaneous Publication 5. Lawrence, KS. 68 pages.
Hamerstrom, Frances. 1980. Strictly for the Chickens. Iowa State University Press, Ames, IA. 174 pages.
Hamerstrom, F.N. Jr., Oswald E. Mattson, and Frances Hamerstrom. 1957. A Guide to Prairie Chicken Management. Wisconsin Conservation Department Technical Wildlife Bulletin 15. Madison, WI. 128 pages.
Holechek, Jerry L., Rex D. Pieper, and Charlton H. Herbel. 1989. Range Management Principles and Practices. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ. 501 pages.
Horak, Gerald J. 1985. Kansas Prairie Chickens. Kansas Fish and Game Commission Wildlife Bulletin 3. Pratt, KS. 65 pages.
Schwartz, Charles W. 1944. The Prairie Chicken in Missouri. Missouri Department of Conservation. Jefferson City, MO.
Schwartz, Charles W. 1945. The Ecology of the Prairie Chicken in Missouri. University of Missouri Studies XX(1): 1-99.
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