Lesser Prairie-Chicken Brood Ecology on the Southern High Plains of Texas

The lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) has declined precipitously in abundance and currently occupies a substantially reduced portion of its historic range. Within the sand shinnery oak (Quercus havardii) prairies at the southwestern extent of the lesser prairie-chicken’s contemporary range, efforts to conserve the species have been constrained by limited information on how land management practices influence habitat quality, and subsequently, affect lesser prairie-chicken recruitment. From 2008–2011, we captured and radio-tagged hen lesser prairie-chickens to monitor broods during four breeding seasons in western Texas. We evaluated influences of vegetation structure and composition, insect availability, and weather on brood ecology on private lands with continuous cattle grazing but no recent herbicide treatment to control shrubs. We located 32 nests from 50 hens captured. Of these nests, 16 produced broods, with 69% of broods lost within the first 14 days. Brood survival was low, and few if any chicks monitored survived to adulthood. Brood sites were dominated by shrub cover and percentages of grass and forb cover were low compared to those reported from other studies. Mean vegetation cover percentages, insect abundance, richness, order, and families did not differ between brood and random sites. Insect abundance was negatively influenced by increased visual obstruction and grass cover, but positively influenced by increased litter, for cover, and winter precipitation. As found in other studies, chick survival, especially within 14 days post-hatch, is the main limiting factor for population viability. Therefore, lesser prairie-chicken populations throughout the Sand Shinnery Oak Prairie Ecoregion will be largely dependent on management practices that restore healthy prairies, including reduced shrub cover and greater herbaceous groundcover.

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