A lesser prairie-chicken’s habitat needs change throughout the year.
A lesser prairie-chicken’s home range tends to be defined by a particular lek (mating display site, also known as a “booming ground”) or group of leks where it has mated before or where its parents mated. A group of lesser prairie-chickens using a particular lek complex may range over 12,000 – 20,000 acres during the course of a year. See how their habitat needs change throughout the year.
Breeding Habitat. Lesser prairie-chickens usually seek out the same lek sites each year, though they will occasionally form new leks, especially when a population is expanding. The habitat where leks occur is often elevated and covered with low-growing vegetation, which enhances the visibility of the males’ breeding displays. Prairie dog towns, with their sparce, short-cropped vegetation, are sometimes used as lek sites.
Nesting Habitat. After breeding on the lek, females seek out nesting habitat. Successful nesting largely depends on the availability of good habitat, which includes low shrubs (like shinnery oak and sand sagebrush), high grass and forb cover, and patches of short vegetation. Hens usually nest within two miles of the lek at which they mated.
Hens usually select tall bunchgrasses or low shrubs as nest sites, located far from trees and other vertical structures. Thus, careful grassland management around lek sites is a key to lesser prairie-chicken survival, since it will determine the amount, variety, and structure of residual grasses and shrubs.
Carefully planned grazing can produce diverse vegetative structure that nesting and brood-rearing lesser prairie-chickens need, including closely cropped travel lanes for chicks, access to abundant seeds and insects, and escape cover. Researchers find that grasslands with light to moderate stocking rates will produce more food (seeds and insects) and habitat diversity than either ungrazed or heavily grazed areas.
Brood-Rearing Habitat. When her eggs hatch, the hen takes her chicks (or “brood”) to brood-rearing habitat. Because chicks have limited mobility, good brood habitat needs to be close to the nest site. Brood-rearing habitat is typically more open than nesting habitat, so chicks can move about easily, with more forbs (broad-leafed herbaceous vegetation) than grass. This habitat not only allows the chicks to move more freely—it also produces a higher abundance of insects, which make up the high-protein diet that the growing chicks need.
Forbs thrive where disturbance produces bare ground, so carefully planned and timed grazing, disking of planted grasses, or fire can improve brood-rearing habitat. The chicks usually remain with the hen for at least twelve weeks. By fall, they’re ready to venture out on their own.
Fall and Winter
Simply put, if lesser prairie-chickens have good nesting and brood-rearing habitat, they should weather the fall and winter just fine. Habitat during the fall looks a lot like nesting and brood rearing habitat, but the birds tend to range across a broader area as available foods change.
During the fall, lesser prairie chickens may visit small grain crop fields if there is waste grain available, and if the field is near enough to native grassland to provide enough cover and resting sites. Many seeds and nuts ripen by fall and serve as primary food sources through the winter.