Web Extra: Attwater's Prairie-Chickens
In the May issue, New York-based writer Margaret Shakespeare, who for two decades reported on endangered species and remote destinations for Wildlife Conservation magazine, writes about Texas’ critically endangered Attwater’s prairie-chickens.
A species of grouse, Attwater’s prairie-chickens were once abundant in the coastal plains of Texas and Louisiana, but have dwindled to fewer than 90 in the wild —a result of habitat loss, predation, and numerous threats brought on by the spread of imported fire ants.
Terry Rossignol, manager of the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge in Eagle Lake, tells me that because Attwater’s prairie-chickens nest on the grounds, scientists once believed that fire ants were killing chicks when they hatched. While this behavior has been observed, scientists now think the more immediate threat results from a depletion of the chickens’ primary food source: In areas where fire ants have invaded, there are far fewer insects to feed the chickens. Studies continue in this area, but on nesting grounds where the ants are controlled, more chicks appear to survive to adulthood.
If you’re interested in seeing the chickens, there are two places in Texas that offer opportunities to watch them in the wild—the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Refuge in Eagle Lake (979/234-3021; www.fws.gov) and the Texas City Prairie Preserve in Texas City, on Galveston Bay southeast of Houston (409/945-4677). During mating season, typically February through April (though last year, the season extended through May), the male chickens put on quite a show—stomping their feet, inflating the orangeish-yellow air sacs on their throats, and making a sound similar to blowing across the top of a soda bottle—all to attract a mate. The lengths we animals go to! (You can hear an audio clip of this performance—called “booming” in chicken circles—on the Web site of the National Attwater Prairie Chicken National Refuge.)
As Shakespeare explains in her story, Rossignol oversees captive-breeding efforts at sites across Texas, including the Houston Zoo, the Abilene Zoo, the Caldwell Zoo in Tyler, the San Antonio Zoo, Sea World San Antonio, and Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, as well as Texas A&M University. At most of these sites, visitors can’t see the chickens without making special behind-the-scenes arrangements. However, we think these sites are worth your support—not only for the enjoyment you’ll experience as you witness other species of the animal kingdom, but also in recognition of the work conservationists here do in bringing the Attwater’s prairie chickens back from the brink of extinction.
From the June 2012 issue.