History of the Greater Prairie Chicken in Missouri
American settlers in Missouri 200 years ago would have been familiar with a ghostly “booming” sound heard in later winter and early spring on prairies. The source of this sound was displaying male greater prairie chickens. Groups of males of this chicken-sized bird display at sites with good visibility, called leks, to attract females during the breeding season. Males inflate orange air sacs on the side of the neck and raise tufts of feathers at the back of the head as part of the display. These tufts gave rise to another name, pinnated grouse.
Greater prairie chickens are birds of native grasslands and occurred throughout Missouri. Early county histories describe them in “thousands,” “without number,” and “numberless flocks.” Some estimates at the time of European settlement exceed one million in Missouri. Chickens roosted on the ground, and one winter roost noted in northern Missouri extended for over a mile. Their abundance was lower in the Ozarks—as far east as Perry, St. Francois, Iron, Reynolds, Shannon, Howell, and Ripley counties.
Meriwether Lewis documented them in Southeast Missouri. On November 16, 1803, near Bird’s Point, he noted “…saw a heath hen or grows which flew of[f] and having no gun with me did not persue it—.” Further, on November 22, south of Cape Girardeau, “…at the expiration of this course saw some Heth hens or grows—one of my men went on shore and killed one of them, of which we made soome soup for my friend Capt. Clark who had been much indisposed since the 16th…” John James Audubon also recorded observations on winter roosting of the “prairie hen” in 1810 near Tywappity, near present-day Commerce. The only suitable habitat for prairie chickens in this region was sand prairie.
John C. Darr, in a diary kept during his 1858 journey by wagon from North Carolina to Arkansas, noted prairie chickens were numerous south of Benton, and the country was sparsely settled.
The greater prairie chicken may have benefitted from early settlement, when waste corn and other grain from small farms increased winter food. Their grassland habitat remained largely intact. They could not withstand the conversion of most of Missouri’s grasslands to crop fields or dry forests, however, because of their need for sites for nesting, booming grounds, roosting, and escape cover.
Overhunting contributed to their decline by the mid-1800s, but loss of prairies sealed their fate. Missouri’s first game law included a limit on the open hunting season to five months in 1851. By the 1880s, large-scale shooting for sale in urban markets in concert with habitat loss took a toll. Sportsmen’s magazines noted prairie chicken hunting was no longer good in Missouri and unlimited shooting was a thing of the past. However, even as late as 1890, three men killed 410 in three hours in an 80-acre field east of Lamar in Barton County where prairies were still largely intact.
The birds disappeared from the Ozarks by 1890, and they became restricted to the remaining prairies in southwestern, northern, and northeastern Missouri. Hunting season closed in 1907, and never re-opened. Conversion of the last large tracts of prairie to crop fields by the 1990s was the final blow. Today, only two populations totaling less than 100 birds persist, one each in St. Clair and Harrison counties. Because birds from Kansas and Iowa stocked these sites, there may be no remaining Missouri greater prairie chickens.