HOUSTON – It all started on March 19, when the very first egg of the season was laid by an Attwater’s prairie chicken at the Houston Zoo, 2 weeks earlier than expected. We knew it was going to be a wild ride this season, and the Birds Department began gearing up for what would end up being one of the most successful breeding seasons ever for this critically endangered grouse.
This bird, native to the Texas Gulf Coast, was once thriving on the coastal prairies, but now there are less than 100 birds left in the wild. We work with US Fish & Wildlife, Texas Parks & Wildlife, and NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and 3 other Texas zoos in an effort to bring this bird back from the brink of extinction. One of the ways we do this is to incubate eggs at the Zoo, keep the chicks healthy as they hatch, and gradually introduce them into the outdoors so they can eventually be released at Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge near Sealy, Texas. This season, we achieved some major goals that will help the program continue to grow. With generous assistance from the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation, we built 8 new pens near the Houston Zoo Vet Hospital to get the birds used to an outside environment after hatching and growing up a bit.
The first 10 days of a chick’s life are the most important for determining whether it will be healthy and able to survive in the wild. We worked with the University of North Texas on genetic pairings of adults to make sure the chicks would be as healthy as possible, and it paid off. Our survival rate was the highest we’ve ever had. The annual Name a Chick campaign is another way that guests can get involved in prairie chicken conservation. This year, 85 chicks were named, resulting in $4,200 in donations for the Attwater prairie chicken program.
Education is a huge part of helping an endangered species survive. We want to educate the public on how important it is to protect these animals by knowing they are there and to keep the prairie pristine for these animals and others that live in their habitat. We also want to keep learning about these animals (our work is never done) so we can continue to have success in breeding them and releasing them into the wild. The coastal prairie, the native habitat of the Attwater’s prairie chicken, is important to protect if we want these animal to thrive And to continue our education and the education of others that work with prairie chickens, we just completed an animal care manual for the Attwater’s prairie chickens that can be used for other prairie grouse in the US that are facing increased threats and habitat loss (yep, this prairie chicken is technically a grouse). We also recently hosted an egg incubation workshop for professionals in the field so they can gain the skills needed to help out. The Attwater’s prairie chickens that were born at our Zoo this year are literally being released out into the Refuge as we speak. This morning, we visited some of the lucky birds to watch them stroll out into their new home, equipped with bands and tracking collars so we can monitor their success. For more on the Attwater’s prairie chicken and our efforts to send them back to the wild, visit the Houston Zoo website at http://www.houstonzoo.org