As I have mentioned, if it wasn’t for the success of the captive breeding program at zoos across Texas, the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken would be long extinct. Fortunately for us, this bird still can be seen on a couple prairies and the population has been increasing each of the last few years.
The main purpose of the captive breeding program is to raise individuals that can be released into the wild to supplement the wild population. The hope is that the birds that are released will some day become part of the wild population, breed in the wild, and continue the species. Unfortunately, as of now, this isn’t completely successful. The released birds are struggling to breed in the wild. They display, mate, and build nests just fine but raising young has proven to be extremely difficult. With virtually zero fledged young from captive released birds, the only way to sustain the population is to continue to release adult birds.
The captive breeding program itself is quite fascinating. The idea is simple: pair birds together, take their eggs, hatch them in an incubator, raise the chicks, and release them as juvenile birds a few months old. However, it is quite a complicated process. Every single captive bird has a documented parentage, and scientists pair birds in order to maximize genetic diversity. The original captive population was less than 20 birds so this extensive genealogy is extremely important.
When the birds are young, they are raised in small cages and then as they grow they are placed in larger pens outside in appropriate habitat. Once the birds are at the appropriate age for release, they are moved to a large pen on the prairies where they are to be released. After a week or so acclimatizing in this pen, they are then released and from then on, they are on their own, hopefully to survive to the next year and to attempt to breed.
One exciting development in the last few years is the establishment of a third population of birds. Up until then, captive birds had been released on only two properties, the National Wildlife Refuge and a small Nature Conservancy reserve in the Houston and Galveston area. A few years back, a population was released on private ranchland near Goliad, about 3 hours southwest of Houston.
What makes this release so exciting is that it represents the future of the recovery for this species. Releasing birds on land set aside specifically for the prairie chickens isn’t sustainable as there just isn’t that much land out there classified as preserves. However, private ranchland covers the vast majority of the landscape and if this species is to someday survive on its own, we have to support local landowners and find ways to help them manage their cattle ranches for good prairie chicken habitat as well. Fortunately, as has been demonstrated by the work done near Goliad, TX, cattle and prairie chickens don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
The Attwater has been pulled back from the very edge of extinction but it is still extremely vulnerable. Without further habitat management and a breakthrough that enables wild birds to successfully raise and fledge young, these birds may not have a future. However, after talking to numerous people involved in the recovery of this species, I am confident that the optimism and enthusiasm of these individuals will enable the eventual recovery of these charismatic prairie dancers.