The Bird

0177NickRichter

Nick Richter photo

Lesser Prairie-Chicken: Icon of the Southern Great Plains

“There’s something about sitting in a blind, in the dark, on a spring morning, and you hear them fly in in the dark. … And then the sun starts coming up, and you start hearing the turkeys, and the coyotes, and the meadowlarks, and the quail, and you start to see the prairie-chickens, and it’s just like this symphony of nature….The first time I really got to see them on the lek was a couple of years ago, and for me personally I think it’s kind of a life-changing experience…” —Sue Selman, rancher, Woodward, OK

There’s nothing lesser about the lesser prairie-chicken. Unless, of course, you’re an ornithologist, in which case you sometimes distinguish among closely related species by making reference to their relative sizes. That’s how we’ve ended up with such common names for birds as lesser goldfinch, lesser yellow-legs, lesser scaup, lesser black-backed gull, and yes, lesser prairie-chicken. It’s the smaller of the two prairie-chicken species on the Great Plains, the other being — you guessed it — the greater prairie-chicken!

While its common name tells a bit about its relative size, its Latin name, Tympanuchus pallidicinctus, reveals other aspects of the bird’s physique. Tympanuchus derives from the Greek tympanon, meaning drum, and the Latin nucha, meaning neck. Together, they refer to the red air sacs the males inflate on their necks during courtship, making a bubbling sound (also described as booming). The species name, pallidicinctus comes from the Latin pallidus, meaning pale, and the Latin cinctus, meaning banded, referring to the banding on the bird’s plumage, which is pale compared with that of its cousin, the greater prairie-chicken.

Now that you know a bit about its name, come learn more about this remarkable grouse, icon of the Southern Great Plains.