Research Sheds Light on Nocturnal Habits of Lesser Prairie-Chickens

What do lesser prairie-chickens do at night? Until recently, scientists had very little data on the bird’s after-hours behavior and habitat preferences. Researchers from Oklahoma State University are filling in some of the blanks, with results that can help inform conservation practices. Graduate student Ashley Tanner, a Ph.D. candidate at OSU, summarized the research teams findings.

Female lesser prairie-chicken with satellite transmitter. Photo Dwayne Elmore, OSU

“Despite the fact that lesser prairie-chickens spend nearly half their time budget every day, throughout the year, at nocturnal roosting sites, we know relatively little about this behavior and associated habitat,” Tanner wrote in her research summary.

At night, Tanner noted,  lesser prairie-chickens are under significantly different pressures than during the day. For example, some potential predators are more active at night, such as coyotes, bobcats, great-horned owls, and American badgers. These additional pressures may alter habitat selection from what is typically used during the day.

Tanner’s research team analyzed 31,324 nocturnal roost locations from 103  individual lesser prairie-chickens (71 males and 32 females) in Beaver County, Oklahoma. They found that mortality was no more likely at night than during the day.

Female lesser prairie-chicken with satellite transmitter (photo Dwayne Elmore, OSU)Moreover, the team found that once a lesser prairie-chicken selected a roosting site, movement from that site was rare. They noted that lesser prairie-chickens moved at least 50m only about 6% of the nights, and moved more than 50m less than 3% of nights. Given the low rates of nocturnal movement, any disturbance that causes a chicken to move nocturnally would be especially disruptive to these birds.

Additionally, the team found that course-scale habitat use during the night was not significantly different than habitat used during the day. Lesser prairie-chickens use areas with higher amounts of plant biomass for roosting.

Tanner notes that the research results fill a substantial void in knowledge about lesser prairie-chicken ecology, helping managers make appropriate conservation management decisions that account for the bird’s needs throughout the day.