Researchers Study Decline of Greater Prairie Chicken

Researchers Study Decline of Greater Prairie Chicken

K-State researchers find predators responsible for destroying eggs, young birds.

The population of the Greater Prairie Chicken is declining and Kansas State University researchers want to know why.

Brett Sandercock and Samantha Wisely, both associate professors in K-State's Division of Biology, have focused their research on the decline.

"Understanding ecological causes of declining numbers is an important first step in conservation," Sandercock said. "Our goal is to use a combination of genetic and demographic methods to understand the impacts of land use and land-cover change on prairie chicken population dynamics."

Field work at three sites in the Flint Hills and Smoky Hills has been directed by three K-State graduate students in biology: Lance McNew, Council Grove; Lyla Hunt, Manhattan; and Andy Gregory, Wamego. The project started in 2006, and the research team has now captured and collected genetic samples from more than 1,300 prairie chickens; put radio collars on 320 females; located 380 nests; and collected 16,500 locations to describe movements and habitat requirements.

Prairie chickens in Kansas have high genetic diversity and do not show any evidence of the inbreeding effects reported for more isolated populations, Wisely said. Reproductive potential is also good because females lay an average of about 13 eggs per nest and regularly re-nest if their first nest is destroyed.

"Population declines are clearly being driven by dismal rates of survival for nests, broods and incubating females," Sandercock said. "Most losses are due to predation, and our results are remarkably consistent among sites and years."

Predators have been investigated by videotaping prairie chicken nests and by deploying scent stations. Skunks, badgers and even gopher snakes have been recorded destroying eggs and young.

Reproductive success is so low that in some years at least seven nesting females are needed to produce a single juvenile prairie chicken, Sandercock said.

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