Spring is the time to hear the Attwater’s prairie chickens booming across the coastal plains of Texas, or even here at Caldwell Zoo. But seeing an Attwater’s prairie chicken in the wild today would be a rare treat because this bird is one of the rarest in the world.
An extremely endangered member of the grouse family, Attwater’s prairie chicken is named for Henry P. Attwater, a Texas pioneer conservationist. Historically, this prairie chicken’s range encompassed six million acres of coastal prairie, which was home to about one million birds. Today, however, the prairie chicken’s range has been reduced by 99%, leaving only two small pockets of habitat outside Houston and only about 75 birds in that wild environment.
Throughout most of the year, this fascinating bird eats plants (fruits, flowers, leaves, seeds/grains and even wild rose hips), but during the summer months the prairie chicken becomes insectivorous. But even more interesting is the breeding activity. Each spring, the Attwater’s prairie chicken goes through an elaborate courtship ritual. The male is territorial and chooses a booming ground (lek), where he begins his extraordinary display with inflated neck sacs, booming, feather shaking and face-offs with other males. A hen will enter the lek to mate with the strongest male – the one in the center of the lek. Nesting is usually in April or May, with nests of about a dozen eggs in deep grass. After an incubation period of 23-24 days, the chicks hatch and are then dependent on the hen until they are completely fledged. Sadly, few young survive to adulthood since the hatchlings are prey for many predators, including fire ants.
Today there are conservation programs designed to save the Attwater’s prairie chicken for future generations. With the help of several breeding facilities in Texas*, it is hoped that someday captive-bred birds will replenish the wild population. In fact, Caldwell Zoo has sent birds back to their natural habitat. However, conservationists speculate that it would take 10,000-20,000 acres of prairie with a population of 5,000 Attwater’s prairie chickens before this bird would no longer be considered endangered.
Texas landowners are also helping with the efforts to save the APC by participating in the Coastal Prairie Conservation Initiative. This program encourages restoration, conservation and enhancement of prairie habitat on private lands.
With everyone’s help, we can restore these interesting residents of our Texas coastal prairies “boom” each spring for years to come. If you would like more information on how you can help, check the Adopt-a-Prairie Chicken Program on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website or call 1-800-792-1112.
You can also contact the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge.
*Breeding facilities include: Abilene Zoo, Caldwell Zoo, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, Houston Zoo, San Antonio Zoo, Sea World San Antonio and Texas A&M University
Help us turn your cell phones, cell phone batteries and chargers into much needed funds for rhino conservation and at the same time keep toxins found in these phones from ending up in our landfills and poisoning our environment.
Collection boxes are located at the zoo's front entry and Tyler Recycling Center. All proceeds collected from cell phone recycling at Caldwell Zoo will be donated directly to the International Rhino Foundation.