Pleistocene Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) Fossils Found in Southern States

Photo of greater prairie chicken from google images.

Youtube video of greater prairie chickens drumming on leks to attract mates.

During the Pleistocene prairie chickens were a common bird, at least locally, in southeastern North America.  Fossils of this species have been recovered from sites in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.  All of these fossils come from cave deposits where hawks and owls originally dropped their remains while feeding.  Bones from at least 4 individual prairie chickens were excavated from Kingston Saltpeter Cave in Bartow County, Georgia, suggesting they were more than just an occasional species, even though most of the bird fossils found there were from woodland species.

There were 3 subspecies of prairie chicken: the greater prairie chicken (T. cupido americanus) which formerly ranged thoughout the tall grass prairie region but has been declining; the endangered Attwater’s (T. cupido attwateri) which lives on the coastal prairies of Texas; and the extinct heath hen (T. Cupido cupido) which lived along the coast of New England.

Specimen of a heath hen. I think heath hens should be considered a different species from the greater prairie chicken based on habitat preference and a DNA study.  Heath hens differed slightly in appearance as well.  They have a more reddish hue, their tarsi are shorter, and they have 5 neck feathers instead of 10.

The difference in habitat preference between greater prairie chickens and heath hens is astonishing.  Despite being considered the same species, their habitat preferences were the exact opposite.  Prairie chickens need completely open grassland of at least 130 acres in extent or their populations will decline.  They can’t even tolerate forest edges.  Trees provide perching platforms for predatory raptors that decimate them.  By contrast heath hens inhabited impenetrable coastal thickets consisting of bayberry, blueberry, beach plum, pine, and shrub oak.   A DNA test shows there were 6 degrees of mutational differences  between prairie chickens and heath hens.  The authors of this paper (referenced below) were hesitant to suggest a new species because their study was based on specimens of the last individuals which were residents of the heath hen’s final refuge on Martha’s Vinyard.  No museum specimens of mainland heath hens exist.  Therefore, the widely differing genetic lineage might be just for the final isolated island population.

Market hunters destroyed heath hen populations on the mainland (reportedly they were tasty).  In a desperate attempt to bolster the final intact population of heath hens on Martha’s vinyard, naturalists introduced greater prairie chickens, but their efforts failed because the introduced birds couldn’t adapt to the different environent.  A fire in 1916 followed by heavy raptor predation and introduced diseases wiped them out by 1932. The Nature Conservancy is considering introducing prairie chickens to Martha’s Vinyard, but this plan should be abandoned–I think it’s doomed to failure because they’re not the same species.

I believe heath hens were genetically isolated from greater prairie chicken populations during the LGM.  A lobe of the Laurentide glacier separated the two populations.  Heath hens survived on the unglaciated continental shelf and islands along the New England coast and gradually adapted to thickets rather than grasslands in a process that took thousands of years.  There’s not much chance of greater prairie chickens being able to adapt to coastal thickets in just one generation.

Pleistocene prairie chicken populations in southeastern North America were likely more adapted to grasslands, like modern day greater prairie chickens, though they may have had more variation in habitat tolerance than their modern descendents because the overall population of the species was so widespread.  Grasslands were common in the south during Ice Ages, especially during cold arid stadials, and this habitat persisted during interstadials as well.  Though most of the fossils of bird species found in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee are from woodland species, prairie chickens are not the sole grassland species.  Fossils of upland sandpipers (Bartramia longicauda) and magpies (Pica pica) also consistently are represented in avian fossil records here, indicating the presence of extensive grasslands.

I came across a study of presettlement land surveys in southeastern Arkansas that shows how grassland habitat large enough to support stable prairie chicken populations could have been distrbuted in the mostly woodland dominated environments of north Georgia and Alabama during the Pleistocene.

Map of Ashley County based on surveyor information from the below referenced paper written by Don Bragg.  There were sizeable prairies within the mostly wooded landscape.

Before European settlement the Ashley County region of Arkansas consisted mostly of upland pine-hardwood forests and bottomland swamps.  However, there were extensive tracts of grasslands large enough for early surveyors to name.  As I noted earlier, studies show that prairie chickens require treeless grasslands of at least 130 acres or their populations will decline until they eventually are extirpated.  Surveyors found at least 5 prairies in Ashley County.  Pine Prairie was 6800 acres, Twin Prairie was 2300 acres, Fountain Prairie was 2000 acres, Brushy Prairie was 500 acres, and Little Prairie was 300 acres.  A map of what’s now Bartow County, where prairie chicken fossils were found, would have had a similar distribution of prairies in a landscape composed more of mixed pine and oak forests and riverine woods.

In Ashley County (and probably the Pleistocene upper south) there were 4 different kinds of prairies.  Upland prairies are created and maintained by frequent fire and megafauna grazing.  Bottomland prairies form from a combination of fire and flood, both of which kill trees.  Alkaline prairies are areas with poor drainage.  As rainwater evaporates rather than draining away, basal salts accumulate, making it difficult for trees to grow, so grass dominates.  These are also known as lick prairies because ungulates are attacted to the accumulation of mineral salts.  Oak barrens are like savannahs with widely spaced post oaks and shortleaf pines.  Light fires kill all but the most fire tolerant species of trees here.  A rare unusual type of barren–hickory/dogwood–occurs in this region too.

Surveyors mapped the Ashley County district between 1818-1855.  They didn’t count every single tree, so studies based on their data are inexact but give good general information.  They marked plats of land by choosing and marking several witness trees on each plat.  The kinds of trees they marked are preserved in written records.  Black oak made up 18%, pine 17%, post oak 11%, white oak 9%, hickory 7%, sweetgum 7%, and all other species 31%.  An exact list can be found on a link to the paper in the references below.  The surveyors didn’t use the largest specimens as “witness” trees, but they still recorded some large trees, including a 12 foot in diameter cypress, and 6 foot in diameter black oak and loblolly pine.  Wild peach and apple trees occurred near abandoned Indian villages.

Ashley County surveyors noted a number of interesting landsapes created by disturbances which I summarize below.

Map of windthrows in presettlement Ashley County from the below referenced paper.  Some of the tracts were obviously made by tornadoes.

Three areas of 2200, 1700, and 400 acres consisted of fallen timber overgrown with vines and brush.  Many smaller areas of fallen trees less than 20 acres in extent were also recorded.  Tornadoes, thunderstorm down bursts, and ice storms caused these natural formations (or malformations).  Fallen trees provide all sorts of habitat and forage opportunities for many species of animals. 

During winter floods near rivers made it difficult for surveyors to do their work.  Floods killed trees and created standing deadwood.  Fallen woody debris often blocked rivers, preventing navigation. 

Surveyors recorded devastating unchecked fires.  One found an area of burned land 6 miles long. 

The earthquake of 1811-1812 formed elliptical depressions that surveyors called “earthquake swamps.”  The land actually sank below the water line, killing every tree in the depression. 

Surveyors reported pimple mounds–high circular swells of 6-30 feet in length.  Geologists later studied these mounds and determined they were formed 700-2400 years ago when severe extended droughts left many places bare of vegetation.  Winds blew sand into little dunes that later became covered with vegetation after the rains returned.

Photo of a pimple mound from google images.


Bragg, Don C.

“Natural Presettlement Features of the Ashley County, Arkansas Area”

American Midland Naturalist (2003) 149 (1-20)

Packovacs, Eric P. ; et. al.

“Genetic Evaluations of a Proposed Introduction: The Case of the Greater Prairie Chicken and the Extinct Heath Hen”

Molecular Ecology (2004) 13 1759-1769

Ryan, Mark R.

“Breeding Ecology of Greater Prairie Chickens (Tympanuchus cupido) in Relation to Prairie Landscape Configuration”

American Midland Naturalist (July 1998) 140 (1)


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10 Responses to “Pleistocene Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) Fossils Found in Southern States”

  1. Jeff Johnson Says:

    Curious to where you found the information concerning the Heath Hen’s historic distribution ranging as far south as Florida? Did one of three cited references state this (Bragg, Palkovacs or Ryan) or did you obtain this information from other papers?

  2. Jeff Johnson Says:

    Two additional papers that may be of interest to you include:

  3. New York City Used to be a Hunter’s Paradise | GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] By 1626, 200 Europeans had settled on Manhattan, and they lived there with 15,000 Indians.  The combined settlements took up less than .1% of the island.  The rest was wilderness.  The first European settlers were shepherds, but wolves ate every last sheep within the first year, and the Europeans were forced to rely on venison and turkey instead of mutton as their main source of protein.  This was not a problem on Manhattan: deer traveled in herds of 25-30 and turkeys in flocks as large as 500, and the Indians were willing to sell game meats door-to-door.  Occasionally, even elk and moose wandered on to the island.  Nearby Staten Island, where the woods grew more dense, was renowned for its bear hunting.  Fur traders made a fortune.  In 1626 the pelts of 7,520 beaver, 853 otter, 81 mink, 36 Canadian lynx, and 34 muskrat were shipped from New Amsterdam.  That doesn’t even count pelts used locally.  Millions of passenger pigeons roosted on the island during summers.  In 1609 when Henry Hudson became the first European to discover New York Harbor, the Indians gave him a feast of pigeons.  One English hunter bagged 100 prairie chickens in 1 day just south of where Times Square stands today.  This species of prairie chicken, known as the Heath Hen, is now extinct.  (See😉 […]

  4. karen brookfield Says:

    I believe we have an example of a heath hen and chick but dont know how to get it verified ,got photos and it looks like one too us.It is in a victorian case with chick can you help identify it please

    • markgelbart Says:

      Send the photos to a professor of ornithology or take them to your nearest museum. Look in the biology department of any university faculty list and I’m sure you will find an ornithologist who would be glad to identify them.

  5. w Says:


    The plan is to resurrect it.

    The Jesus chicken?​

    • markgelbart Says:

      I wrote an article about revive restore. I’m sure they can bring back individual animals, but I doubt they will be able to re-establish a population in the wild.

  6. W Says:


    I picked it up without knowing anything about it but is turns out it is excellent.

    Brand and the passenger pigeon project are in it but is MUCH more than that.


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