Breeding Season Management

Spring brings the start of the breeding season for the Attwater’s prairie-chicken, and refuge staff invest countless hours monitoring the birds during this time. Management activities include conducting population surveys, protecting nests, and tracking daily movements of hens and their broods of chicks. All this work brings the Attwater’s closer towards recovery and eventual de-listing from the Endangered Species List.

With the start of spring comes warmer weather and Texas wildflowers at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, but more importantly for refuge staff it signals the start of the busy field season. It isn’t easy working to recover one of the most endangered birds in North America, and it takes a dedicated team of refuge staff, volunteers, zoos, and other partners to keep the program going.

Male Attwater’s prairie-chickens have gotten their practice in and are in full display by March, and their chorus of booming and stomping feet in the early morning becomes a familiar wakeup call during the next few months. Groups of males congregate on booming grounds, hoping to impress the hens that are watching to determine who will be her mate.

The booming displays are exciting to watch and attract visitors from around the world, and refuge biologists and interns use these displays to conduct surveys of the birds. The staff must arrive at the refuge before sunrise, and they each take a vehicle and drive different parts of the refuge. They make frequent stops to listen for the distinctive booming sound, and they document the location of booming grounds they find and the number of males and females they see. After weeks of completing these surveys, the biologists calculate an estimate for the population on the refuge. The refuge manager posts this estimate inside the visitors center for the rest of the year, which will serve as the answer to the question, “How many birds are here?” The booming grounds located in the surveys are also critical to the refuge’s public outreach program because visitors have the chance to see prairie-chickens at these sites during the annual Attwater’s Prairie Chicken Festival in April.

Spring surveys lead to more hard work for the refuge biologists: the nesting season. Throughout the year, interns track the movements of prairie-chickens using radio telemetry. Most of the birds that have radio collars on them are female, which allows the biologists to locate their nests in the spring. When a hen has been in the same location for several days, the biologists and interns will go out to the location to try and find the nest. If they do find an active nest, they will construct a protective nest fence around it. The fence is made of metal mesh that is staked into the ground, and it is designed to keep predators like snakes out while still allowing the hen to leave the area as needed. Constructing these fences is important because it doubles the chance of survival for the hen and her nest.

When the hen is away from the nest, the biologists will check on her eggs. This includes seeing if the nest has been destroyed, determining if the eggs are fertile, and weighing the eggs. Although finding a predated nest is disheartening, if the hen survived she has a chance to build another nest and re-lay eggs.

Once the nest successfully hatches, the biologists will remove the nest fence and allow the hen to lead her brood of chicks through the prairie. The interns will track the hen’s location every day, and they will go out to the location that the brood was in during the previous day and collect insect samples and record the vegetation type and cover. This data is used to determine if the hen is leading her brood into areas with good cover and food for the young chicks, who need high-protein insects to grow.

All of this work is done for one hen and her chicks, and this process is repeated for all of the hens that are radio-collared on the refuge. Although it requires a magnitude of involvement from the entire refuge staff, the extra hours are worth it when some chicks survive to adulthood and become the parents to future prairie-chicken generations.