lesser prairie chicken_28_02_2014
A lesser praire chicken male - all puffed up and ready to woo. Image: J.N Stuart, Flickr.

The lesser prairie chicken is no ordinary chicken. For a start, it's one heck of a dancer ... at least the males are. In fact, round about now, male lesser prairie chickens are probably working on their moves in preparation for their spring-time breeding season. Serious danceoffs are afoot.

The courtship displays unfold on what's known as a lekking ground, which is where the ungainly birds transform into avian lotharios: their eye combs bristle, they inflate their bright-red air sacs and launch themselves into long, elaborate routines of flutter-jumping, high-pitched cackling, booming and foot-stomping to woo a mate. It all looks something like this and it's pretty darn impressive. 

Clearly, for the lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus), there can be no love (and therefore no chicken babies) without dancing and a lekking spot. And that's the trouble: thanks to rampant habitat destruction, suitable dancing arenas are hard to come by these days. In fact, the prairie grassland habitat the birds rely on — spanning the states of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado — is under increasing threat. Overall, as much as 92% of it has now vanished, and last year a study highlighted some alarming declines. It estimated that 2,036 occupied breeding areas existed in 2013 — a drop of more than 30% from 2012. And those habitat declines translate to plummeting populations: numbers fell by half in just the past year. At the time, the Center for Biological Diversity warned: "These vanishing birds need the protection that only the Endangered Species Act can provide if they’re going to survive."

The birds have been waiting for that crucial legal protection since 1998; and in the meantime, their habitat has faced an onslaught from oil and gas drilling, agricultural expansion and drought. Finally, this week, an Endangered Species Act listing finally materialised — the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the species as threatened. But that, say conservationists, is just not good enough.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the designation of 'threatened' rather than 'endangered' creates loopholes and exemptions that will undermine efforts to protect the species. The listing will allow the same destructive activities responsible for wrecking prairie chicken habitat to continue — it will just require companies to promise action under voluntary conservation plans in exchange for their harmful activities.

"The population of lesser prairie chickens plunged by half to only 17,000 birds last year,” says Jay Lininger, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is an emergency situation that requires the strongest protections possible. Instead, the Fish and Wildlife Service turned its back and relied on voluntary conservation plans that only amount to a wink and a nod with no accountability." 

In a press release the Center notes that full protection under the ESA is a proven effective safety net for imperiled species like the prairie chicken: 

More than 99% of plants and animals protected under the Act persist today. The Act is especially important as a bulwark against the current extinction crisis, during which plants and animals are disappearing at a rate much higher than the natural rate of extinction due to human activities. Scientists estimate that at least 227 species would have gone extinct were it not for the protections provided by the Endangered Species Act.

“The sky will not fall if full protection of the Endangered Species Act applies to lesser prairie chickens,” says Lininger. “We owe it to future generations to ensure that this funny, charismatic bird can co-exist with economic development.”

Top header image: Larry Lamsa, Flickr