This species account is dedicated in honor of Russell B. Faucett, a member of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Administrative Board.
Greater Prairie-Chickens once thrived widely in native prairie intermixed with oak (Quercus spp.) woodland in central North America, their populations extending to both the northeast and south-central coasts. The species evolved in a landscape that consisted of large, open, contiguous grassland, most of which over the past 150 years has been transformed into cropland, producing multiple isolated populations of various sizes, each dependent on habitats possessing unique biotic and abiotic characteristics that influence this bird's ability to persist. Despite respectable efforts to prevent local extinction throughout much of the species' range, most Greater Prairie-Chicken populations remain small and precarious, dependent on infusions of new birds through translocation or captive breeding programs.
The three recognized subspecies of Greater Prairie-Chickens vary slightly in appearance but dramatically in status. One, the Heath Hen (T. c. cupido), is extinct. Another, Attwater's Prairie-Chicken (T. c. attwateri), is endangered. The Greater Prairie-Chicken (T. c. pinnatus) is extinct, or in danger of extinction, in 18 states and provinces, but numerous enough to be legally hunted in 6 states.
Some of the earliest efforts to manage wildlife populations in North America were initiated in 1791 when legislation was passed to protect the Heath Hen from market hunting. The challenge we face today is finding the balance between spatial and temporal factors important for maintaining adequate heterogeneous habitat to meet the needs of this species for breeding, nesting, brood-rearing and roosting. Current land-use practices do not foster these goals.
Alarmingly declining populations, status as a game bird, and spectacular breeding displays have helped to make the Greater Prairie-Chicken a focus of study. Recent work has centered on habitat requirements and the effects of fragmentation on population viability, indentifying limiting factors important for growth and sustainability. Very little is known about how females choose mates on a booming ground, although studies in Kansas suggests that male testosterone levels may play a important role (Augustine et al. 2010).