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March 2002

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Down to a Handful

By Douglas H. Chadwick
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, the remnants of six million acres 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 to raptor, snake, skunk, disease, storm, starvation, collision with fence wire—anything—could trigger a final countdown.

Fifty miles due west of Houston, in Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, I was a field 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.

Trying a new tack, biologists placed several adult pairs in protected enclosures on the federal refuge. The hope was that the birds would become more familiar with the local environment and its dangers and that offspring would fare better under mother's watchful eye. I joined Dawn Blake, an AmeriCorps volunteer, as she delivered food and water to the pens. A free-roaming male had been noticed around the cages, but she said that it would likely fly off as we neared. We were unlatching a pen door when a foot-tall figure strolled around the corner.

It was the male. I froze to avoid scaring him. No problem. He rushed at Blake in a golden-pouched, tap-dancing fury. He leaped up, grabbed her pants in his beak, and beat her calves with his wings. In my mind already named Raging Bull Grouse—definitely not Chicken—he then did the same to me. He sang, and he danced on our shoes. He shoved past our legs, trying to break into the pen and Oo-loo-woo the captive female. It took forever to squeeze through the door without him. This guy had no intention of going quietly extinct.

Don't count your chickens before they are hatched. Some eggs laid in the refuge enclosures went cold and rotten. Nests fell prey to snakes. Chicks just breaking out of shells were overwhelmed by fire ants. Other young disappeared within hours of release.

It isn't that the public doesn't care. The problem is that the public hardly knows that Attwater's prairie-chickens exist. Funding for field research and captive breeding therefore stays scarce. Plans to reconnect fragments of coastal grassland habitat gather little momentum. A unique, irreplaceable creation and its elaborate behavior, special adaptations, particular store of genes, and the daybreak beauty it fashions are fading out largely for want of attention. Look closely. Every one of America's plains and prairie grouse has been losing ground as well.

Like a lot of people I'm uncomfortable with good-byes. I stand around waving and uttering bland parting phrases when I feel all torn up and my mind is reeling with things left unsaid. I don't want to say so long to Raging Bull, to the shy hen that huddled at the corner of the pen, or to any of their kind. I'm not going to. There is not one reason why Attwater's prairie-chicken need disappear from a nation this grand, so full of innovators, and so willing to offer a hand once its citizens hear a clear call. Here it is: Oo-loo-woo. Why not go join the dance?


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