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Health & Science

Houston Zoo Wraps Up Summer Restocking Prairie With Prairie Chickens

Biologists released 375 captive-bred Attwater’s Prairie Chickens to Habitat Reserve


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AAttwater Prairie Chicken
Male Attwater’s Prairie Chicken. In the spring, the males inflate their yellow neck sacs and stomp around to attract a mate. The process — and the sound — is called “booming.”  Photo Credit: © Houston Zoo/Stephanie Adams


Houston zookeepers work to save all types of endangered animals, from African elephants to Galapagos tortoises. But they also work quietly to conserve species in Houston’s ponds and prairies.

captive-bred birds
Terry Rossignol, refuge manager, watches captive-bred birds explore open prairie for the first time after being freed from a transitional holding pen.

I learned three incredible things on my late-summer trip to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, 60 miles west of Houston.

One, the Attwater’s is not actually a chicken. It’s a grouse, a game bird that nests and hides on the ground. (And it’s a gorgeous grouse — especially in the spring when the males inflate their yellow neck sacs and stomp around to attract a mate. The process — and the sound — is called “booming.”)

Two, the main factor driving the chicken to extinction is humans gobbling up its prairie habitat for farms, rice field, and suburbs. But it’s also threatened by invasive fire ants. The ants compete for food and have been known to gruesomely devour a baby Attwater’s chick before it can even peck its way out of the shell.

And finally, conservation is quiet work. I had imagined a dramatic wave of birds of birds flushing from cages, flying out over the prairie in a dramatic wave. Instead, we spent the early morning creeping through the mud and prairie grass until we reached an open-air pen.

Rebecca Chester, a wildlife biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, first turned off an electrified wire, then started unlatching a gate.

“We just unhook all the fence pieces, and these are on here for a little bit of predator deterrence,” she said.

There are only about 100 of the chickens living wild here on the reserve. Every year, the Houston Zoo breeds and hatches more. But instead of freeing them abruptly, the young birds spend two weeks in this open cage, a sort of halfway house.

They learn the sights and sounds and tastes of the prairie, living on the open grass. But a cage of chain-link fencing and nets protects them from predators such as snakes, skunks, hawks and even bobcats.

Joe Flanagan, the chief veterinarian at the Houston Zoo, described the two-week transitional period as a learning period for the captive-bred birds.  

“They need to know where to hide, where the food is, where the water is,” he said.

Attwaters Priarie Chicks
Attwater’s Prairie Chicks © Houston Zoo/Stephanie Adams

When Chester first opens the gates, nothing stirs. There’s just wind and rain falling on the native bluestem grasses.

But finally a few birds start to poke forward, emerging into the open. Flanagan counts at least five. “These are our zoo babies going back home to the wild. There’s another!”

With more money for breeding, and perhaps some more land, the population could reach a self-sustaining level, said Hannah Bailey, the curator of birds. But it’s not there yet, and the bird is still classified as critically endangered, the most severe level right before extinction.

Flanagan said the work being done at the Reserve, in conjunction with other Texas zoo that breed the chickens, is about more than just this one species. It’s also about ecological integrity.

“The prairie chicken is an umbrella species,” he explained. “If we protect the prairie chicken and the habitat the prairie chicken is from, we protect all the native grassland species: the bobwhite quail, the western meadowlarks, the Houston toad — a lot of native animals that are abundant and should be abundant.”

The zoo released 375 chickens this summer, almost double the number it released last year. The hope is enough will survive to reproduce in the spring.

This is a look at recent efforts to save the Attwater’s prairie-chicken, one of the most endangered birds in North America. We spend some time with biologists from The Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge as they work to save a bird that is on the brink of extinction.







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