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Prairie Grouse: Game Bird Profile

Also known as prairie chickens, these interesting birds make their home on America's native prairielands.

Prairie Grouse: Game Bird Profile

There are two species of prairie grouse (greater and lesser), and while similar they have some distinct differences. (Photo By: Nattapong Assalee/Shutterstock.com)

Our journey of exploration into North American grouse species has already led us to the ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse and spruce grouse—all fine game birds in their own right. All, indeed, have something to offer gun dog owners from various parts of the country.

Now let’s head back to the prairies where we found those sharp-tailed grouse to meet a couple of other cousins, the greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) and lesser prairie chickens (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus)—both of the family Phasianidae. The two species, while similar, have some distinct differences.

prairie grouse in flight
The short-flushing prairie grouse is a favorite quarry of upland wingshooters. (Photo By: Jemini Joseph/Shutterstock.com)

Prairie Grouse Range

Greater prairie chickens are found on native tallgrass prairie, a habitat type that has been greatly diminished over the past several decades. Current range runs from northeast Oklahoma throughout most of Kansas except the southwest portion, through the middle of Nebraska from north to south, and throughout large portions of both North and South Dakota. Some small populations of the birds are also found in Minnesota and Michigan. The birds have an estimated breeding population of about 360,000.

Prairieland habitat for prairie grouse
Naturally, both greater and lesser prairie grouse inhabit the prairies and grasslands of the central parts of North America. (Photo By: TommyBrison/Shutterstock.com)

Lesser prairie chickens inhabit the southern Great Plains and are typically found only in prairie and agricultural land with shinnery oak and sand sagebrush. Populations are mainly limited to parts of west Texas, a small strip of western Oklahoma, southwest Kansas, and far southeastern Colorado. These birds once occupied large portions of grasslands in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, but now they number only about 27,000 due mostly to widespread habitat loss.


Prairie Grouse Biology & Habitat 

The greater prairie chicken is a roughly crow-sized bird that is smaller than a pheasant but larger than a ruffed grouse. They weigh about two pounds and have a wingspan of about 27 to 29 inches. Their mottled brown, black and white feathers make it appear that they have vertical stripes, and their underside is barred brown and white.

Lesser prairie chickens are smaller than the greater—somewhere in size between a ruffed grouse and a greater prairie chicken. The chunky bird has a small head for its body and a relatively short tail. The lesser typically weighs around 1.5 pounds and has a slightly narrower wingspan than the greater. In color and feather patterns they are very similar to greater prairie chickens.

Both species have similar reproductive habits. Males display on open, flat, elevated areas where they can be easily seen by females of the species. After mating, females build their nest in the grassland’s brushy cover, where the greater lays five to 17 eggs and the lesser lays eight to 13 eggs (generally about a dozen). Females of both species sit their eggs for about 24 to 25 days, and young are precocious, able to follow the female soon after hatching.

Both species have suffered greatly in recent years because of the destruction of much of their natural habitat as native prairies have been converted into farmlands for growing crops. Set-aside programs and conservation easements have helped slow that loss over the past few decades, but as grasslands continue to disappear, prairie chicken numbers will likely continue to fall.

prairie grouse mating display in booming grounds
Prairie grouse head to common "booming grounds" to mate and nest during the spring months. (Photo By: Danita Delimont/Shutterstock.com)

Hunting Prairie Grouse

Kansas offers perhaps the best opportunity for hunting greater prairie grouse. Gun dog owners will likely find the early season to their liking since hunters with dogs can take advantage of the tendency of young greater prairie chickens to hold well. That gives hunters the opportunity to get in some good dog work before other Kansas seasons, like quail and pheasant, open.

Hunting later in the fall provides less walking hunting opportunity and more chances for pass-shooting these interesting members of the grouse family. The late season finds birds often leaving their prairie roosts and flying to nearby milo or other feed fields to eat first thing in the morning. Sitting along the edges of such fields provides good opportunities for hunters to shoot some birds, but the shooting isn’t easy. While prairie chickens might look like they’re flying slow, they’re actually moving much faster than they look. Ask me how I know!

Other states that offer at least limited hunting seasons for prairie chickens include Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota. As with other grouse species, make sure and check the hunting regulations for the state where you intend to pursue prairie chickens before starting to plan a hunt or you might waste a lot of time and effort.

english setter on point
Many upland bird hunters elect to run pointing dogs to cover more ground in the open country when chasing prairie grouse, but a close working flushing dog will also put you in a position to connect with birds. (Photo By: Bridges Photography/Shutterstock.com)

For shotguns, the 12-gauge is the best option for pass shooting since some of the birds might be at an extended range, and a modified choke will let hunters reach out there a little better. Number #6 or #7.5 shot is also advisable to deliver a little more extra energy on the birds. Either 12- or 20-gauge is fine for the early season hunting behind a dog. And, since birds will often be taken at shorter ranges, more open chokes and smaller shot (#7.5 to #8) work just fine.

Natural resource managers in states with prairie chicken populations devote much effort to managing the species, but the bird’s need for native grasslands and the continued loss of prime habitat doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the future. Hopefully these efforts to preserve habitat will lead to a future where the prairie chicken continues to live and prosper in places that manage meet its habitat needs.


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