How do Lesser Prairie-Chickens Survive the Winter?

by Amy Erickson, LPCI wildlife biologist, Portales NM

Here in eastern New Mexico, winter weather can be unpredictable. Last week, the temperature was in the high 50s, with one day reaching 63 degrees.  This is in stark contrast to the incredible storm we experienced just two weeks earlier—a blizzard so severe that winds were clocked at an amazing 82 miles per hour on Cannon Air Force Base. The blowing snow and sub-freezing temperatures did not relent for 48 hours and claimed the lives of an estimated 35,000 dairy cows in eastern New Mexico and west Texas. Thousands of people lost power, and some were snowed in for days.

Lesser prairie-chickens burrow beneath the snow to escape winter winds and cold temperatures.

Lesser prairie-chickens burrow beneath the snow to escape winter winds and cold temperatures.

As I sat warm and comfortable in my home, my thoughts turned to the local wildlife. Surely no wild creature could survive a storm of this magnitude, especially not a bird.  They seem so fragile—nothing but feathers and hollow bones and a few scraps of muscle. I remember reading a study on the white-crowned sparrow, a tiny songbird that spends the winter here.  Researchers estimated that this species’ energy needs are so high and their metabolism so fast that they have to find, on average, one seed every 5-10 seconds or they will perish. Truly, birds fascinate me. They survive day by day on the razor-thin edge between life and death. This begs the question—how could a lesser prairie-chicken survive unrelenting blowing snow for two days straight?

Though scientists have yet to collect empirical data on lesser prairie-chicken winter ecology, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of their strategies. Like other grouse, lesser prairie-chickens have a unique strategy to deal with snow—they tunnel beneath it to escape the harsh wind! Studies on other grouse, such as ptarmigan, have shown that the birds scoop out burrows in the snow, complete with a ventilation hole at the top. Greater prairie-chickens, the lesser’s larger cousin to the north, have been documented diving into snow banks to escape the wind.

It is likely that the closely related lesser prairie-chicken has similar tricks up its sleeve. Most studies on radio-collared birds show the lowest mortality rates during the winter months and the majority of bird deaths occurring during the breeding season. Rather than being detrimental their survival, the cold and windy winter months may in fact be the safest time of year for the lesser prairie-chicken.

On January 9th, just days after the blizzard subsided, a local landowner spotted a group of 35 lesser prairie-chickens on a ranch near Milnesand. The year before, hunters flushed up 28 birds in the same spot. Against all odds, they seem to be surviving—perhaps even thriving—in the harsh landscape of the southern High Plains.