Houston Matters

Saving Attwater’s Prairie Chicken: An Endangered Bird with A Loud ‘Boom’

There are just over two dozen of the birds left in the wild, but a breeding program at the Houston Zoo hopes to change that.

Attwater's Prairie Chicken - FWS
An endangered Attwater’s prairie-chicken, native to the Texas Gulf Coast.

Houston might not seem like the kind of place where a lot of wildlife used to thrive, or where wild grouse used to run free. But they did, namely a bird called the Attwater’s prairie chicken, which despite its name, is actually a grouse, not a chicken. The males are known for the ‘booming noise’ they emit during mating season.

The birds used to number in the multitudes along the Texas Gulf Coast. But as their habitat disappeared, the population dwindled from as much as a million more than a century ago, to less than ten thousand by the middle of the 20th-century, to a few hundred just a few years ago.

Today, just over two dozen birds still live in the wild. And the birds are split between the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge an hour west of Houston and another private refuge near Goliad.

But despite Houston’s role in decimating the habitat of the bird through its never-ending sprawl, the city is also playing a role in bringing the bird back. The Houston Zoo is one of several places in the state that is breeding and raising the birds to be released at the 10,000-acre refuge, in hopes that the population can rebound.

Attwater's Breeding Pen
April Zimpel of the Houston Zoo catches an Attwater’s prairie-chicken in a breeding pen at NASA.

Flooding events in recent years, however, have provided additional challenges.

“It’s been pretty hard on the population,” April Zimpel, a bird keeper at the Houston Zoo, tells Houston Matters. “The Memorial Day flooding was really tough that year. We had a lot of birds out in the wild that abandoned their nests and things like that.”

During Hurricane Harvey, the population took an additional hit, but Zimpel says they’ve been able to bounce back this year.

The zoo is one of three sites in Texas where Attwater’s prairie chickens are bred in captivity. It can take about eight weeks before the birds are ready to be released into the wild.  

“It’s an extraordinary amount of manpower,” Zimpel said. During their time at the zoo, the birds’ weight, diet and activity are all closely monitored.

Once at the refuge, the birds continue to be fed for a few weeks. “We’ll gradually wean them off of the food as they learn to find food on their own,” John Magera, the director of the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, told Houston Matters.

Part of A Larger Ecosystem

Attwater’s prairie chickens have short brown and white feathers on their bodies, and longer feathers on their heads that stick up like ears. The males boast bright orange air sacks on their necks that inflate to help make their characteristic ‘booming’ sound.

Though they may not be the animal kingdom’s sexiest creature, or receive as much public attention as other endangered species, the birds play an important role in the larger ecosystem.

“It’s not necessarily the prairie chicken itself that were so desperate to protect; it’s what they represent,” Magera said. “It’s that native prairie ecosystem that has become so rare. We’re saving what in a lot of people’s mind is a very iconic species that represents a larger landscape, a larger ecosystem.”

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Michael Hagerty

Michael Hagerty

Senior Producer, Houston Matters

Michael Hagerty is the Senior Producer for Houston Matters. He has a degree in journalism from Abilene Christian University and has served as news director for NPR and PBS stations around Texas and The West, including: KUNR-FM in Reno, Nev.; KNPB-TV in Reno, Nev.; and KWBU-TV/FM in Waco, Texas. He...

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