Prairie-chickens are large birds that are actually types of grouse. Grouse are adapted to cold weather and have feathered feet. There are two species of prairie-chickens, the lesser prairie-chicken and the greater prairie-chicken. As their name implies, greater prairie-chickens are slightly larger and there are also subtle differences in the plumage (feather pattern).
Both species of prairie-chickens occur in prairies. They require very large expanses of prairie with a diverse plant community consisting of grasses and forbs. Lesser prairie-chickens also occur in shrubs such as sagebrush. Conversion of prairies to agriculture has been detrimental to prairie-chickens. Also, in many areas fire is not as frequent as it once was. This has allowed trees such as the eastern redcedar to encroach. Prairie-chickens generally avoid areas with tall objects such as trees. Prescribed fire is a necessary practice to manage for these grouse.
Because of their avoidance of tall objects, many man-made structures such as wind turbines and power lines cause prairie-chickens to avoid these areas. Thus, it is important that new wind turbines and power lines be located away from important prairie-chicken habitat. Areas that are already fragmented (broken up by crop fields or cities) are good places to locate wind turbines. Large areas of prairie are poor places to locate wind turbines because these areas are prime habitat for prairie-chickens.
Prairie-chicken males gather together in the spring on areas called leks. These areas are usually in the same location each year. On the leks, the males do a display to try to attract a mate (female grouse). They do an elaborate dance that involves stomping their feet, jumping, dragging their wings, raising special “pinnae” feathers on their neck, inflating a brightly colored neck air sac and making strange “hooting” or “gobbling” noises. Prairie-chickens are a good indication of how healthy a prairie is. When they start to disappear, the ecosystem is not in good condition.