- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
Permanent resident; an uncommon species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
Formerly widespread throughout the grasslands of the Great Plains and Upper Midwest, the Greater Prairie-Chicken is now largely restricted to the northern Great Plains states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and northwestern Minnesota (Figure 1). Scattered populations are found father south and east of the core breeding range. Three subspecies are recognized: (1) the Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido), originally found in the northeastern United States and now extinct; (2) the Attwater’s Prairie-chicken (T. c. attwateri), which is now restricted to the central Gulf coast of Texas and is federally endangered; and (3) the Greater Prairie-Chicken (T. c. pinnatus).
A game species, the Greater Prairie-Chicken was assigned a 15/20 Continental Concern Score by Partners in Flight and designated a Yellow Watch List species; officially listed as a state Special Concern Species in Minnesota and designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Historically Greater Prairie-Chickens undertook short-distance migratory movements, and females moved farther south than males. Roberts (1932) included several accounts of large flocks from Minnesota and northern Iowa moving to Missouri for the winter; the movements were presumably more pronounced in severe winters. Today the birds are largely nonmigratory, moving only short distances (up to 30 miles) (Svedarsky and Van Amburg 1996). Some researchers have suggested that as populations have declined, there is less competition for food during the winter months. At the same time, the grassland landscape has become more fragmented by agricultural lands, which provide abundant winter food resources, thereby reducing the necessity for moving south as temperatures fall (Johnson et al. 2011).
Omnivorous; consumes a wide variety of insects, leaves, fruits, and seeds; waste grains are important during the winter months.
Ground nest built in a shallow depression.
The Greater Prairie-Chicken was an original inhabitant of the midwestern tallgrass prairie. The full extent of the Greater Prairie-Chicken’s distribution prior to European settlement is imprecisely known, but its core likely stretched from the central plains states of Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma east to Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky (Johnson et al. 2011). Its status in Minnesota at that time is unclear; it may have been a rare species in the very southeastern corner of the state in the early 1800s (Schrader and Erickson 1944; Partch 1973; Hoch 2011).
What is undisputed is the rapid spread of the species across Minnesota as settlers turned the prairie sod into productive agricultural fields and began clearing the dense northern forest for its valued timber. Although the Greater Prairie-Chicken would become the symbol of prairie conservation efforts in the state, it is a relative newcomer to the state’s western grasslands, having forced the northern retreat of the truly native grassland grouse the Prairie Sharp-tailed Grouse (Roberts 1932). The latter, however, is more dependent on savanna-like conditions, where prairies are interspersed with open woodlands. The adaptable prairie-chicken, on the other hand, favors more open country and was more suited to the wide-scale conversion of the state’s sweeping prairie landscape and the mosaic of small farms, croplands, pastures, and hayfields that followed the plow in the 19th century. Making its home in the agricultural landscape, the species became an important game bird to the early settlers.
Many articles and technical papers provide today’s student of Minnesota birds with accounts of the species’ history in the state (e.g., Hatch 1892; Roberts 1932; Schrader and Erickson 1944; Erickson and Petraborg 1952; Partch 1970, 1973; Svedarsky et al. 1997; Hoch 2011). The Greater Prairie-Chicken was not reported by those who explored the region centuries ago, such as Father Hennepin, Jonathan Carver, and later, Henry Schoolcraft. Thus, Hatch’s first comprehensive report about Minnesota birds provides one of the earliest known accounts of the species’ appearance in the state (Hatch 1892). Hatch’s good acquaintance the Reverend E. G. Gear was a chaplain stationed at Fort Snelling beginning in 1839. A natural history buff, he remarked that the prairie-chickens “were seldom seen at the first, but after the country began to become settled considerably, they increased in numbers perceptibly from year to year.”
From that point forward, the species’ progression across the state was well documented. Partch (1970) compiled numerous excerpts from the literature to map various fronts of the species’ expansion northward and westward. Hoch (2011) briefly summarized dates and places that marked the species’ progression. After being reported at Fort Snelling by Reverend Gear in approximately 1839, the birds moved northwest, reaching St. Cloud by 1860, and the North Dakota border near Moorhead by 1879. Just two years later, they were reported in Kittson County by Roberts, who saw 3 in a group of Sharp-tailed Grouse that were shot near the town of Hallock. Although residents in the area reported the chickens had only recently appeared in the region, four years later they were considered abundant throughout much of the Red River valley. Partch (1973) estimated the movement across the prairies proceeded at a rate of approximately 16 km per year.
Their progression into the state’s forest region was considerably slower. Nevertheless, logging and wetland drainage, followed by the establishment of small farms enabled the species to expand even into the northern forest landscapes of Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ontario (Svedarsky et al. 2000). Prairie-chicken’s became established in forest clearings in the Mille Lacs region as early as 1885 and appear to have reached Duluth and the North Shore of Lake Superior in the late 1880s or early 1900s. But from its first appearance at Mille Lacs, nearly 20 years would pass before it was observed along the Iron Range in west-central St. Louis County in 1906, and in Itasca County in 1921 (Roberts 1932). At its peak abundance in the early 1900s, biologists estimated that its range covered nearly 92% of the state (Hoch 2011). Yet, as widespread as the species presumably occurred, Roberts reported confirmed nesting records (nests with eggs) from only 6 counties stretching only as far east as Kandiyohi and Meeker Counties: Grant (1924), Kandiyohi (1881), Kittson (1929), Meeker (1891), Otter Tail (1926), and Pipestone (1914). An adult with a young brood was also reported from Polk County (1928).
Although its numbers surged as it expanded across the state, the Greater Prairie-Chicken’s heyday was short-lived. As Roberts (1932) noted, it is an easy bird to shoot. When flushed, “it flies off in a direct course” and makes an easy target for the hunter’s gun. Despite the enactment of some hunting regulations as early as 1858, most restrictions were blatantly ignored until the early 1900s (Swanson 1940). Indeed, in the latter half of the 19th century, it was not unusual for hunters to take 50 to 100 birds per day (Swanson 1940). As late as 1932, Roberts went to great length to admonish hunters for the excessive take: “Unless sportsmen’s organizations become less selfish and more willing to practice instead of vainly preach conservation, the days of the Prairie-Chicken are numbered.” In just 10 years the estimated take in Minnesota during the hunting season declined from 328,914 birds in 1923 to only 29,216 in 1933 (Erickson and Petraborg 1952). By 1942 the season was closed.
Hunting pressures certainly reduced population numbers significantly, but other changes were underway in the early 20th century that influenced the prairie-chicken’s present distribution. Most important was the intensification of agricultural practices. New machines made it more efficient to farm large, uniform fields, which replaced the original mosaic of pastures, croplands, and native grasslands that provided ideal year-round habitat for the birds. By and large, when croplands comprised 20% to 30% of the landscape, the birds did well, but when croplands exceeded that percentage, they declined (Svedarsky et al. 1997, 2003). Rather than retreating to southern Minnesota, their first gateway to the state, the dwindling numbers retreated to the unplowed prairies remaining along the old gravel beach ridges of former Glacial Lake Agassiz in northwestern Minnesota. A small, isolated population also remained farther east, in the vicinity of Wadena.
In 1975, Green and Janssen described the species’ distribution as restricted largely to the grasslands of northwestern Minnesota, from Wilkin County north to Polk and Red Lake Counties. The small eastern population in Wadena and Cass Counties also persisted. The population decline that Roberts (1932) witnessed in the early 1900s continued through the 1960s. Resident flocks that “were present in Fillmore and Mower Counties until the late 1930s” were long gone. Birds were last seen near Duluth in 1952 and “an outlying population in Morrison County” was last seen in 1965.
Several years later, Janssen (1987) reported that a 1983 census estimated 1,500 males on booming grounds. The population, he noted, “has remained fairly stable over the past five years with some increases noted; this is probably due to more accurate censusing than to actual increase in birds.” Small numbers of birds had even been recently discovered in Hubbard and Marshall Counties. Since 1970, confirmed nesting reports were limited to Clay and Chippewa Counties. Their presence in Chippewa County was the result of reintroduction efforts by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in the early 1980s. In 1998, Hertzel and Janssen added Mahnomen and Wilkin Counties to the list of counties with confirmed nesting. When the Minnesota Biological Survey was working in western Minnesota in the late 1980s, they identified 60 breeding season locations for the species. With the exception of a few reports from eastern Wadena and western Cass Counties, all locations were located in northwestern Minnesota, from southwestern Otter Tail County north to northwestern Polk County (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2017).
Today, the northwest region remains the Greater Prairie-Chicken’s stronghold in Minnesota. Intensive field studies have vastly improved the understanding of the species’ management needs, leading to a gradual increase in numbers. In addition, a concerted effort has been made by state and federal resource agencies and conservation organizations to protect and restore the state’s critical grassland resource. Now closely monitored, the status of the population has improved to the point that hundreds of birds have been used for at least four reintroduction projects, including in the states of Illinois and North Dakota and in the grasslands in Minnesota’s upper Minnesota River valley (Svedarsky et al. 1997; Roy 2016). A limited hunting season was also established in the fall of 2003, with the average annual take approximating 120 birds (Roy 2016).
During the MNBBA, participants reported 394 Greater Prairie-Chicken records from 3.0% (142/4,784) of the surveyed atlas blocks and from 1.7% (39/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding evidence was gathered in just 10 survey blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). The birds were documented in 20 of Minnesota’s 87 counties (Chippewa County was included because one atlas block straddled Chippewa and Lac qui Parle Counties) and were confirmed breeding in 4 counties. Atlas efforts were aided immeasurably by the contribution of prairie-grouse survey data from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The Glacial Lake Agassiz beach ridges remain the core of the species’ range. Small numbers also persist in Wadena County, and the small population reintroduced into west-central Minnesota, in the upper reaches of the Minnesota River, is faring well. Outside of these known populations, isolated observations were documented in far northern Kittson County and, to the south, in Pipestone County; the latter was 1 of 4 breeding records (a hen with 4 young found in a location where a male was booming in the spring). Although many predicted the demise of the prairie-chicken nearly 100 years ago, this adaptable bird has become, with considerable help from conservation organizations and resources agencies, a healthy and beloved representative of Minnesota’s grassland resource.
The Greater Prairie-Chicken’s story in Minnesota was replicated throughout much of its breeding range from the mid-1800s to the present. As Johnson et al. (2011) note in their comprehensive review of the species, much of the data available on its historical distribution are based on “hypothetical distributions of appropriate habitats, both anecdotal and objective accounts, and inferences from phylogenetic and demographic historical accounts.” Despite this uncertainty, Greater Prairie-Chickens are known to be extirpated in 12 states and provinces and rare to uncommon elsewhere. Johnson and his colleagues also provide a detailed account of all the efforts that have been undertaken to reintroduce the birds to former breeding habitats and/or to augment small, remnant populations.
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.