Kenn Kaufman recounts the troubled history of Lesser Prairie-Chicken

4/11/2014 | 0

Lesser Prairie-Chicken in New Mexico, Wikimedia Commons.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken in New Mexico, Wikimedia Commons.

Contributing Editor Kenn Kaufman provides tips for identifying birds in every issue of BirdWatching. In April 2014, he tells what to look for to identify Lesser Prairie-Chicken (shown above) and offers the following thoughts about the species’ troubled history.

There is no doubt that prairie-chickens were once abundant. Travelers wrote of seeing flocks of hundreds, or even thousands. In 1874, during the heyday of market hunting, 300,000 were shipped to market from eastern Nebraska alone. Today that number might make up half the world population of all prairie-chickens.

The “Heath Hen,” the sub-species of Greater Prairie-Chicken on the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Virginia, was gone from the mainland by 1870; the last remnant group on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, died out in 1932. The “Attwater’s” subspecies, once abundant on coastal prairies of Texas and Louisiana, is down to three tiny populations maintained by captive breeding. The main population of Greater Prairie-Chicken is down to a fraction of its former range; it is extinct or endangered in 18 states and provinces, and mostly declining in the six states where it still has significant populations.

View a map of Lesser Prairie-Chicken sightings.

Lesser Prairie-Chickens are thought to have declined by 85 to 97 percent since the 1800s, and to have disappeared from 92 percent of their former range. The species is certainly endangered but not, as I write this, officially listed as Endangered. It was proposed for that status almost 20 years ago, but it lives in a region where conservation often collides with politics. By March 2014, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is supposed to decide whether to give the bird the protection of the Endangered Species Act or to leave its fate up to the individual states in its range.

Update: As you can read here, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on March 27, 2014, announced that it had listed the Lesser Prairie-Chicken as Threatened.

Contributing Editor Kenn Kaufman.

Contributing Editor Kenn Kaufman.

About Kenn Kaufman

Kenn Kaufman is naturalist, artist, conservationist, speaker, and author of many books, including the Kaufman Field Guide series and the beloved memoir Kingbird Highway. In August 2013 he was elected a Fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union. His column “ID Tips,” featuring the photographs of Brian E. Small, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. The article above is an excerpt of a column that ran in our April 2014 issue. Subscribe.