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Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken


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By Douglas H. Chadwick Photographs by Joel Sartore



Fewer than 50 Attwater’s prairie-chickens hang on in two refuges. Can Texas’ obscure grouse beat extinction?



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Don’t tell these chickens the sky isn’t falling. The air is full of hawks that soar and circle, patrol and scan. Then they come plummeting in a rush of outstretched talons, fierce yellow eyes, and beaks like shears.

At sunrise I watched the Attwater’s prairie-chickens transform from mottled grouse into ornaments that exalted the flat coastal plain of Texas. They struck a rigid pose, tail feathers held over their backs in spiky fans. Special neck feathers cocked up behind their heads like horns. On each side of the throat big patches of golden skin with magenta margins inflated like balloons, and extra gold flared over the eyes.

Strutting about, the performers bowed while deep notes boomed from the resonant air sacs. Oo-loo-woo. Oo-loo-woo. Then they boogied, each stamping his feet as though trying to drive them into the ground. You’ve seen this before—the tail fans, the thumping footwork—in Plains Indian dances, drawn from the courtship displays of male prairie-chickens gathered each spring on their booming grounds.

Suddenly the males have transformed again. Where a dozen paraded a second ago, I can’t find one. Flattened with heads stretched out on the sod, the birds seem to have melted into it. Why? A hawk just swept by.

The sky is falling! This is no false alarm. There are about 10 other male Attwater’s and 20 females left in the wild. They inhabit two separate grassy patches in Texas totaling 12,400 acres (5,018 hectares), the remnants of six million acres (2,428,114 hectares) of coastal prairie that supported as many as a million Attwater’s a century ago. The grouse were over hunted early and hit by habitat loss every year since.

Eastern North America held throngs of a close relative whose booming awakened early colonists. Called heath hens, they declined from the same causes. By 1929 one male remained. It endured for three lonely winters, and then the heath hen was gone. Now we’re near the point where the loss of one more Attwater’s o raptor, snake, skunk, disease, storm, starvation, collision with fence wire—anything—could trigger a final countdown.

Fifty miles (80 kilometers) due west of Houston, in Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, I was afield with the manager, Terry Rossignol, when three birds flushed at a distance, spooked by us. They were the first he had seen for months. He was still talking excitedly when a biologist came by with a plastic bag. In it were prairie-chicken parts, a tiny transmitter the animal had worn, and pellets from the owl that in all probability killed it.

Rossignol’s shoulders slumped. “It seems that’s how it goes with these birds,” he said. “Good news, followed by bad news. Always a dark cloud hovering somewhere close by.”

Enlisted to try breeding Attwater’s in captivity, staff at Texas A&M University, four Texas zoos, Sea World, and another private wildlife facility called Fossil Rim learned how many steps in artificial incubation, rearing, and feeding can go haywire in an 11th-hour rush. Still, their dedication yielded enough breakthroughs that they are delivering nearly a hundred young birds annually to the wild.

Good news, then bad: Only one or two percent of these newcomers have survived. This is partly because so much other wildlife, predators included, crowds into the same islands of natural prairie, tousled and flower-splotched within an expanding grid of rice fields, oil fields, overgrazed cattle pastures, and housing developments. Yet if it weren’t for replenishment by captive-bred birds, the count in the wild would already be zero.

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Online Extra
The call to save Texas’s Attwater’s prairie-chicken takes on heightened urgency as a couple of dozen struggle to survive in the wild.

Video
Watch a male attwater-prairie chicken strut and squawk his stuff as he tries to attract a mate.
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Forum
Conservation groups are working hard to raise money to breed more of the nearly extinct Attwater’s prairie-chicken and to buy land for habitat. How far should we go to protect these and other scarce animals? Share your thoughts.


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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.


In the 1600s, the earliest New England colonists were serenaded by heath hens thrumming their annual mating calls on brushy flats and forest margins along the coast. According to one report from the early 1800s, these grouse were so plentiful in the Boston area that servants, fed up with a steady diet of heath hen, refused to eat them more than a few times a week. Still, by the mid-1800s heath hens had disappeared from the mainland, and Martha’s Vineyard became their final sanctuary. There a population of 120-200 in 1890 dwindled, after a series of devastating fires on their mating and nesting grounds, to one lone male in 1929. For three lonely years he continued his noisy search for a mate in vain—until he too passed into extinction.

—Jeanne E. Peters


Texas City Prairie Preserve
nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/texas/preserves/texascity.html
One of the two preserves where Attwater’s prairie-chickens can still be found in their natural habitat. It is operated by the Nature Conservancy.

Threatened Species
www.redlist.org/search/details.php?species=40167
The website for the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources includes their Red List of threatened and endangered animals around the world.

Endangered Species
eelink.net/EndSpp.old.bak/ES.lists.html
A list by region outlining the endangered and threatened species of the United States and Canada. Most of the information was supplied by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Fuller, Errol. Extinct Birds. Cornell University Press, 2001.

Grouse Partnership News. Fall 2001.

Johnsgard, Paul A. Grouse and Quails of North America. University of Nebraska Press, 1973.

Johnsgard, Paul A. The Grouse of the World. University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

The World Wildlife Guide to Extinct Species of Modern Times. Beacham Publishing, 1997.

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