The sounds of male Attwater’s prairie-chickens could be heard throughout the gulf coast prairies of Texas and Louisiana in the early 1900s, when they numbered to about 1 million birds. However, as the 1900s continued, the species dwindled to the edge of extinction. Today, the Attwater’s prairie-chicken is found in only two Texas counties, including Colorado County and Goliad County.
There are several factors that contributed to this species’ decline: habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, overhunting and red imported fire ants. The coastal prairie habitat was lost rapidly to conversion into croplands, urbanization, industrial expansion, conversion into improved pastures, invasive plant species and brush encroachment due to fire suppression. Less than 1% of the estimated 6 million acres of gulf coastal prairie habitat remains today, making it one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America. This habitat is now heavily fragmented, with most remaining portions of coastal prairie being too small to support a prairie-chicken population.
In the late 1800s to early 1900s, uncontrolled hunting also contributed to the bird’s decline. Hunters would compete to kill the most prairie-chickens over several days, only to waste piles of bird carcasses at the end. Texas legislature banned the hunting of prairie-chickens in 1937.
Ever since their introduction to Texas in the 1950s, red imported fire ants have been detrimental to native insect populations. A decreased number of native insects meant a decrease in food for young chicks. This lowered chick survival considerably and added to the Attwater’s prairie-chicken’s decline.
As populations became smaller and smaller, they became more susceptible to disease, parasites and genetic problems. Natural factors, like predation and weather events that could be overcome by larger populations, began to have a stronger effect on the prairie-chicken’s small numbers, thus causing even more of a decline. Back when there were around 1 million Attwater’s prairie-chickens, there were enough birds that survived predation to reproduce. Their range was still broad, so they could recover from periods of drought, floods or storm events and repopulate impacted areas. But now, with their numbers so low, weather events are far more catastrophic and every Attwater’s prairie-chicken lost to a predator makes a huge difference.
Hope still remains for this species. In 1992, a captive breeding program was initiated by Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. Presently Fossil Rim, the Houston Zoo, Caldwell Zoo in Tyler and the Sutton Avian Research Center are successfully raising Attwater’s prairie-chickens for release into the wild. Less than 200 birds make up the captive flock at these facilities. The first release of captive bred Attwater’s prairie-chickens occurred during the mid-1990s. Today an average of a little more than 300 birds are released annually at Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge and private property in Goliad County. There, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy implement management practices to conserve the coastal prairie and the Attwater’s prairie-chicken. The ultimate recovery goal for this imperiled bird is to restore and maintain a genetically viable, stable, self-sustaining population of at least 6,000 breeding adults annually over a 10 year period. Through the combined efforts of government agencies, universities, private landowners, environmental groups and corporate organizations, we have hope for the Attwater’s prairie-chicken. Perhaps the sound of this magnificent bird will once again be heard throughout the gulf coast prairies of Texas.
This grouse species is barred brown and white. Males have long, dark feathers on their neck, called pinnae, which raise above their heads during their courtship dance. Males also have bright yellow/orange combs above their eyes and air sacs on their neck. Younger non-breeding males can be distinguished from hens by their dark crown and solid dark tail feathers. Hens have shorter, less-pronounced pinnae, a buffy crown and barred tail feathers.
The Attwater’s prairie-chicken has a chunky, round body roughly the size of a football with a small head and a short, rounded tail.
Weight: 1.5 to 2.5 pounds
During their courtship rituals, males have a bright yellow or orange air sac on their neck that inflates to amplify a low booming sound that can carry for half a mile. Displaying males will make quite a ruckus with other cackling and whooping sounds. Hens will make brirrb and kweh sounds to gather or warn their chicks.
From February to May, male Attwater’s prairie-chickens perform their courtship displays to attract a hen. Hens start choosing mates in March and nest in a small, shallow depression hidden in the prairie. Hens will incubate an average of a dozen eggs for approximately 26 days. After they hatch, chicks will follow the hen for at least six weeks. The average chick survival is 25 percent.
An Attwater's prairie-chicken's life span in the wild is about 2 years.
Despite the name, prairie-chickens aren’t chickens at all; they are grouse! While they are both from the same taxonomic family of birds, Phasianidae, the domestic chicken we know originated from the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) in Asia. These junglefowl belonged to the subfamily Pavoninae, while grouse species like the prairie chicken belong to the subfamily Phasianinae. So are they related? Sure, technically all birds are, but the domestic chicken is more a brother to a peacock, than it is our prairie-chickens.
While considered a subspecies of the greater prairie-chicken, the Attwater’s prairie-chicken is distinct from its slightly larger relative, Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus, which lives farther north in the tallgrass prairies. Another subspecies of the greater prairie-chicken, the heath hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido), went extinct in 1932.
The next closest relative would be the lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus), which lives in prairies in the southern Great Plains. Other grouse in this family are sharp-tailed grouse, sage-grouse and ptarmigans.
The Attwater’s prairie-chicken is endemic to the coastal prairie habitat of Texas and Louisiana. This mid to tall-grass prairie habitat is diverse in grasses and flowering plants. Big bluestem, little bluestem, Indiangrass and switchgrass are staple grass species in this habitat and important for prairie-dependent wildlife. Before westward expansion, the health of the coastal prairie was maintained by grazing American bison and natural wildfires. Herds of bison roamed the grasslands and their movement and grazing behaviors helped to keep the vegetation from becoming too thick, creating a clumpy grassthat prairie-chickens utilized. Wildfires caused by lightning strikes or set by Native Americans removed woody vegetation and allowed grasses to prosper. Both of these factors kept the prairie healthy and created a diverse mosaic landscape of denser and sparser vegetation areas, which were used differently by wildlife. Now, these natural processes must be reproduced through management practices, like grazing cattle and prescribed burning, in order to maintain what remains of the coastal prairie.
Six million acres of coastal prairie once stretched across the Gulf Coast. Acre by acre, coastal prairies diminished as cities and towns sprouted up, industries grew and expanded, and farmers converted native grasslands to croplands or non-native pasture. Suppressing wild fires allowed brush species to invade the prairies. Now, less than one percent of this habitat remains. Most of what is left of the coastal prairie is broken up into small fragments, so there are few tracts of land remaining that are large enough to support a population of Attwater’s prairie-chickens.
Land on which the natural dominant plant forms are grasses and forbs.
Adult prairie chickens forage on leaves, seeds and buds native to the prairie. Young chicks depend on insects for food, like grasshoppers, beetles and caterpillars. As the chicks grow older, and as the weather grows colder, the chick’s diet transitions to seeds and vegetation.
Ever since their introduction to Texas, red imported fire ants have been detrimental to native insect populations. A decreased number of native insects meant a decrease in food for young chicks. This lowered chick survival considerably and added to the decline of the species.
These ground-dwelling birds spend most of the year living inconspicuously in the tall prairie vegetation. They generally walk rather slowly and carefully, unlike their fellow ground-dwelling neighbor, the northern bobwhite. Although they spend most of their time on the ground, prairie-chickens are actually strong fliers. While they may fly short distances to escape a predator, they can also fly several miles to travel between roosting and feeding sites.
Beginning in late January and into February, male prairie-chickens will begin to gather in areas of low grass to start their elaborate courtship displays. These areas are called booming grounds and act as the male’s dance stage to attract females. Booming grounds may be naturally occurring short grass flats or even artificially maintained areas such as dirt roads.
Each morning, from February to May, male prairie-chickens claim their spot on a booming ground and dance away for hours. Holding their tails erect and wings drooped, males drop their heads to inflate the sacs with a low booming sound, while stomping their feet extremely fast. Males will also jump and charge at each other throughout this activity. It’s hard work to attract a mate!
Once the female chooses and breeds with a male, she leaves the booming ground to nest in a shallow depression on the open prairie, usually within a mile of the booming ground. The hen lays a dozen eggs and if she’s lucky, they’ll hatch about 26 days later. Only about 30 percent of all nests escape predators that include opossums, skunks, raccoons, coyotes, snakes, and domestic dogs and cats. If a hen’s nest is destroyed early in the season, she may find a new mate and try again. When a nest successfully hatches, a hen’s brood, or family of chicks, will stay with her for at least six weeks. However, less than half the chicks make it to adulthood, and heavy rains can mean even lower nesting success.
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