Attwaters Prairie-Chicken


Over a century ago, up to one million Attwater’s prairie-chickens graced the coastal prairies of Texas and Louisiana. Each spring, males gathered to perform an elaborate courtship ritual.

They inflated their yellow air sacs and emitted a strange, booming sound across a sea of grasses. Today, less than one percent of coastal prairies remain and the Attwater’s prairie-chicken has been pushed to the edge of extinction.

The Attwater’s prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus cupido attwateri) is an endangered grouse that is unique to Texas and Louisiana gulf coastal areas. It is a barred brown and tan bird with a short, rounded, blackish tail. It weighs about 1.5 to 2.5 pounds. Check a bird book and you’ll find it is listed as a slightly smaller, darker form of the greater prairie-chicken that lives farther north in tallgrass prairies.

Attracting a Mate
If you visited a lek, it is hard to imagine why the inconspicuous, grass flat attracts a frenzy of activity each year. A lek, or booming ground, is an area typically used year after year for courtship activity. They may be naturally occurring short grass flats or even artificially maintained areas such as dirt roads, or oil well pads.

For males, a lek is their stage. Here, they perform each morning and evening from February through mid-May. Holding their tails erect and wings drooped, they inflate their air sacs, then drop their heads to deflate the sacs with a low sounding "whur-ru-rrr" while stomping their feet extremely fast. Jumps and charges at other males are interspersed throughout this booming activity. It’s hard work to attract a mate.

Once the female chooses and breeds with a male, she leaves the lek to nest in a shallow depression on the open prairie, usually within a mile of the booming ground. If her nest is destroyed early in the season, the hen returns to mate again.

The hen lays a dozen eggs and if she’s lucky, they’ll hatch about 26 days later. Only some 30 percent of all nests escape predators that include opossums, skunks, raccoons, coyotes, snakes, and domestic dogs and cats. Less than half the chicks make it to adulthood. Heavy rains can mean even lower nesting success.

Chicks stay with the hen for at least six weeks, dining mostly on nutritious insects. As the chicks grow older, they join the adults in pecking the leaves, flowers, and seeds of prairie plants in addition to insects.

Attwater’s prairie-chickens were once found on six million acres of prairie along the Gulf Coast from Corpus Christi, Texas, north to the Bayou Teche area in Louisiana and inland some 75 miles. Grasses and flowering plants of many species waved in the winds including little bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass.

Acre by acre, coastal prairies diminished as cities and towns sprouted up, industries grew and expanded, and farmers plowed up native grasslands for croplands or tame pasture. Suppressing prairie fires allowed brush species to invade the prairies.

Many grasslands species slowly found they had nowhere to go, including the Attwater’s prairie chicken. Concern over the rapidly disappearing habitat prompted the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy to purchase about 3,500 acres of prairie in the 1960s. This land was purchased by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1972 and today is the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. To ensure this species continues to grace the Texas landscape, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge staff manages the refuge for the benefit of this species and have made protecting it and its habitat a top priority.

More than a century ago, the Attwater’s prairie-chicken population was estimated to be up to a million birds. By 1919, the grouse species had disappeared from Louisiana and by 1937 only about 8,700 birds remained in Texas, signaling the end of hunting for a once common game bird. It was listed as endangered in 1967 and in 1973 the Endangered Species Act provided immediate protection. The Attwater’s prairie-chicken is considered one of the most endangered birds of North America.