What’s in a Name? The Peculiar Perfection of the Lesser Prairie Chicken

Lesser Prairie Chicken. Photo: Fotolia, Wild Earth Guardians.

It’s hard to imagine a name less befitting the grandeur of the endangered grouse than “lesser prairie chicken.” Trifling grouse, maybe? Boring ground bird? It’s hard to say which is the worst. All of them fall far short in capturing the striking physical appearance and peculiar mating behavior of the prairie denizen.

Sure, the lesser prairie chicken wambles a bit in flight because of a body that looks like a partially deflated balloon. But this bird also boasts coral-colored throat sacs, bright orange eye combs, and expressive ear tufts that stand up like a headdress when the male is engaged in pageantry and droop in hangdog fashion following a rejection or a defeat in battle. In a weird way, the incongruity between the prairie chicken’s plump shape and brilliant adornments only adds to its allure. It’s nature’s equivalent of the family station wagon tricked out with racing stripes and a rear spoiler. It’s impossible not to watch as it cruises by.

The lesser prairie chicken’s mating behavior might be even more fascinating than its appearance. When lesser prairie-chickens lek (breed), a whole host of males will compete for some personal space in the sand sage so that they can entice females to view an elaborate mating display. The few females that dare enter this obstreperous battle ground are pursued relentlessly, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the human dating scene. The males will puff and stunt and grapple as they struggle for attention. Erratic clashes send peppery feathers flying through the air to get caught in the grama stalks and sagebrush. The bird becomes a blaze of sunset colors as he stamps, shuffles, and bobs among the buffalo grass. He will genuflect before a female, wings spread out on the ground, his tail lifted. Or perhaps he’ll perform a flutter jump with quick flaps of striped wings. The dance is a signal of both fitness and intelligence, and females choose the prospective mate with the smartest moves.

The sweetness of the song matters, too, and males will trill and chortle in their attempt to win a female chicken’s approval. When male chickens pin their heads forward to make a slow, seductive approach, they flare their tails and peak their ear feathers as their throats grow swollen with a booming vibrato song. A male will squeak, cackle, drum, and gobble, and his voice will rise in an excited “pike call” when he feels the time is ripe to woo a mate. His boom can travel a mile across the plains, sounding like approaching thunder. If a competitor interrupts, the birds break back into combat with stabbing beaks and swinging wings. When the feathers clear, the victor gets right back to dancing and singing.

It’s a ritual that might seem better suited to the rainforest, where the far more charitably named superb bird of paradise struts his stuff. Or maybe you’d expect such grandiose behavior from the more positively monikered bowerbird—who will adorn his tiny palace of sticks with colorful litter and show off his wing flicks when a potential mate comes to scope out his digs. But, unlike the Bowerbirds, you won’t find an Indie band calling themselves the Lesser Prairie Chickens, at least not without a heavy dose of irony. The hidden cost of such a misnomer is that those unacquainted with the lesser prairie chicken’s humble majesties find it easy to subject the bird to scorn or depict it as insignificant. After all, what’s one little chicken against the tide of economic progress?

Quite a lot, actually. For one, the lesser prairie chicken’s decline can teach us important lessons about the sensitivity and interdependence of ecosystems. The deliberate eradication of bison and prairie dogs, and the suppression of naturally occurring wildfires, allowed mesquite, redcedar, and other woody plants to pervade the shortgrass prairie, disrupting prairie chicken breeding and nesting grounds. Mess with even one player in an ecosystem, and watch the rest suffer. If the losses snowball? Well, the extinction of the lesser prairie chicken could serve as a tipping point for the collapse of an iconic American landscape. Such is the peril of eliminating species that have existed on the American prairie for tens of thousands of years.

The lesser prairie chicken also serves as a herald for the precarity of its prairie habitats. When climatic and habitat conditions are favorable for the lesser prairie chicken, livestock fares well. When things are rough for the prairie chicken, ranchers and farmers can expect a hard season. In other words, the herd does as the bird does.

Despite the prairie chicken’s clear role in supporting human endeavors, we’ve responded by decimating its habitat, chopping it up with cropland, livestock grazing areas, fences, oil and gas wells, powerlines (which provide a perch for birds of prey), buildings, and roads. We’ve diminished the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat by 85%, and as a result their population has declined by as much as 99% in some ecoregions. Of the remaining habitat patches, only around .1% are sufficiently unfragmented to sustain even a minimum population of lesser prairie chickens. A decade ago, an already diminished lesser prairie chicken population declined by half in a single year. The threats to the bird are myriad. Lesser prairie chickens succumb to fungus-based biotoxins that fester in waste grains and watch their eggs get thrashed by harvesting equipment or get roasted in their nests by soaring temperatures. Lesser prairie chickens are hardy and can typically satisfy their water needs on dew and sand sage, but in times of drought, which climate change is making more frequent and severe, they seek out larger water sources, where more predators lurk in wait.

Field studies have suggested that oil and gas development could completely eliminate lesser prairie chicken populations. This is because the birds don’t just avoid the roads built to access stations or the wellpads themselves, but flee the entire oil and gas field. The birds despise the wellfield noise and oil-well-wastewater.

Rather than support a bird whose diet is primarily comprised of insects that damage crops, and whose wellbeing is a bellwether for the health of an entire ecosystem, some still argue that we should give priority to the same fossil fuel interests we’ve propped up with tax and energy policies for a century—despite the enormous profits the industry already reaps and the enormous damage it inflicts. In one year, the 1,800 largest fossil fuel companies made $500 billion in profits, yet they still received direct subsidies totaling $700 billion. That astronomical number doesn’t even include the health and environmental costs of pollution that are passed on to the public. The estimates for subsidies can climb as high as $5 trillion per year when all the damages that will occur as a result of climate-related events are accounted for. Fossil fuel companies then use those subsidies to quash environmental protection efforts.

But it’s the environmental protection efforts that work and the subsidies that don’t. Ninety-nine percent of species granted Endangered Species Act protections have avoided extinction, and concerted conservation efforts have been successful at boosting the lesser prairie chicken population levels in recent years. In contrast, fossil fuel subsidies have forever failed to improve production or create jobs. They’re so ineffective that the costs, in terms of public health and production lost due to pollution, actually exceed the value of the subsidies.

Don’t be fooled by fearmongering—the only way to gain true energy independence is to ditch fossil fuels. Endangered Species Act protections are stiff, so the proposed listing of the lesser prairie chicken as endangered in its southern range and threatened in the northern grasslands could play a huge role in shutting off the wellspring of wasted money taxpayers gift to fossil fuel executives, a gratuity that comes at the expense of taxpayer’s own health and the wellbeing of their environments.

The lesser prairie chicken is anything but trifling or boring, and a grouse by any other name would sing as sweetly. It’s past time we stopped propping up industries that pollute our prairies and started supporting the animals that lend them song and color. For heaven is here where the prairie chicken lives.

Nick Bascom is a third year law student at UCLA serving as a summer intern with WildEarth Guardians. Before law school, he taught for many years and wrote for Science News and Research Penn State. His first novel, Mordor, California, will be published in the fall. He lives with his wife Camrynn, his son Kyber, and his dogs K.C. and London. 

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