Greater Prairie-chicken, Once the Quintessential Game Bird of the Prairie State
Ask an old-timer about upland hunting in Illinois, and you’ll get an earful of nostalgia about the days when fields were thick with pheasants. But long before ring-necks cackled from fence rows in Illinois, a different game bird reigned in the Prairie State: The Greater Prairie-chicken.
The greater prairie-chicken has a storied history in North America, with ups and downs, twists and turns, and an uncertain future. Understanding its story provides insight into our part of the journey we share—not just with one species, but with communities of species.
The historic range of the greater prairie-chicken covered a broad swath of the middle of North America, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Indigenous people throughout the range of the prairie-chicken were familiar with this grassland grouse species. Among the family groups in Mandan and Hidatsa cultures was the Prairie Chicken Clan. The prairie-chicken’s elaborate courtship ritual inspired dances that were passed down for generations in Blackfoot tradition. In Illinois, records of prairie-chickens have been found in the Cahokia Mounds, indicating the importance of this species as early as 1200 A. D. Ojibwa, Ottawa and Potawatomi knew the greater prairie-chicken as “kewaunee,” which became the namesake of towns in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, where these birds once thrived.
French explorer Jacques Marquette documented the prairie-chicken in 1674-75 in the area now known as Chicago. In 1803, explorer Meriwether Lewis noted prairie-chickens near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Three years later his partner William Clark referred to greater prairie-chickens as “the prairie fowls Common to the Illinois.”
White settlers were greeted by the resonant courtship calls of prairie-chickens in early spring—an experience like none other. “Imagine them assembled … see them all strutting in the presence of each other,” wrote John James Audubon. “Inspired by love, the male birds, before the glimpse of day lightens the horizon, fly swiftly and singly …. Their tails are spread out and inclined forwards, to meet the expanded feathers of their neck, which … lie supported by the globular orange-coloured receptacles of air, from which their singular booming sounds proceed … The fire of their eyes evinces the pugnacious workings of their mind, their notes fill the air around, and at the very first answer from some coy female, the heated blood of the feathered warriors swell every vein, and presently the battle rages …The vanquished and the victors then search for the females, who, believing each to have returned from the field in triumph, receive them with joy.” The species was aptly named Tympanuchus cupido, which means “drummer of love.”
Settlement was a boon to prairie-chickens, and the birds were a boon to hungry settlers. Early farming practices in Illinois created a patchwork of prairie interspersed with diverse crops and savanna. This land use pattern turned out to be much to the prairie-chicken’s liking. Vast expanses of pasture managed for cattle in central and north-central Illinois suited the birds as well. From the prairie-chickens’ point of view, the “new” Illinois landscape was a bonanza of food, all there for the taking. As for the farmers, the prairie-chickens were an easy and plentiful food sources as well. It was a win-win, with qualifications. The birds became agricultural pests when large numbers descended on crops.
The prairie-chicken population peaked in the mid-19th century. Wildlife biologist Ronald Westemeier cited estimates as high as 14 million birds in Illinois between 1852 and 1862.
There were clouds on the horizon of the bird’s future. The landscape was changing at lightning speed. In the second half of the century, agricultural technology rapidly transformed the mosaic of corn, beans, wheat, oats and native prairie to a landscape of monocultures. The vast fields became biological deserts for many species. Making matters worse, commercial hunting was a booming business. With no regulations to curb them, profit-driven market hunters plundered wildlife in jaw-dropping numbers. For a host of native birds, including the greater prairie-chicken, it was a perfect storm of habitat loss and out-and-out slaughter.
Reports of prairie-chicken numbers in the early decades of the 20th century vary by county, but the population was, without a doubt, taking a nosedive. “By 1940,” wrote Westemeier, “prairie-chickens were essentially gone from central Illinois.”
The loss did not go unnoticed. Wildlife biologists warned that the species was in dire straits, and the Illinois Audubon Society sounded the alarm. The Illinois Department of Conservation closed the hunting season in 1933.
Experts recognized, though, that hunting was not the only factor in the equation. Habitat was the other critical component. Land was needed, and land cost money. Land management was also needed, and that, too, cost money. Fortunately, a slew of environmental legislation passed in the early decades of the 20th century lent support to recovery efforts for species across the country. The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, was just one among many acts that helped the plight of species needing habitat protection.
Private groups chipped in, and together with state conservation biologists teamed up to piece together habitat preserves for the beleaguered prairie-chicken. Two of the early refuges in the 1940s were the Green River Conservation Area in Lee County and the Iroquois County Conservation Area. These held promise as prairie-chicken habitat, but the prairie-chickens didn’t care for the multiple uses allowed in these preserves. By 1960, the prairie-chickens were gone from these preserves.
Attention turned to southeastern Illinois. There, two introduced grass species, redtop and timothy grass, were important hay crops. These grasses proved suitable for greater prairie-chickens, particularly during nesting season. In 1962, a tract of land in Jasper County (once known as “The Redtop Capital of the World”) was designated as a prairie-chicken sanctuary. There would reside the “only native flocks on native range east of the Mississippi River.”
Subsequently, additional acreage in both Jasper and Marion counties were combined to create a larger greater prairie-chicken habitat. Known as Prairie Ridge State Natural Area, this refuge today comprises 2,600-acre. While prairie-chicken recovery is one of the area’s main goals, habitat for one species is habitat for a host of species.
The greater prairie-chicken is not out of the water yet. The vagaries of weather, predators (native and introduced), and human activity are constant challenges. In 2012, numbers dropped to just 50 birds. This set off “Mayday!” alarms and prompted a recovery program to augment the struggling population and to insure genetic diversity. Biologists trapped and translocated greater prairie-chickens from a robust population in Kansas to Prairie Ridge in Illinois. As of 2019, according to site manager and Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) wildlife biologist Bob Gillespie, the population stood at roughly 200 birds.
The greater prairie-chicken has had a bumpy ride over the past few centuries. Once the quintessential game bird of the Prairie State, it’s now struggling to hang on in a fast-changing world. While many folks rue the decline of pheasants from the countryside, we’d do well to learn from the native upland bird who preceded the ring-necked pheasant. The story is the same: habitat protection and responsible stewardship. This simple strategy benefits all species, new and old.
With a pheasant in my vest and a bird dog by my side, I dream of the days when the greater prairie-chicken boomed in an ocean of prairie. Maybe, someday.
Valerie Blaine has worked as a naturalist for more than 40 years, from the prairies and woodlands of Illinois to the shores of the San Francisco Bay. She earned a master’s degree in forestry and a bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Illinois. Blaine retired as the Nature Programs Manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County.