While Lesser Prairie Chickens can be found in substantial numbers across several states, the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken is only found on three single prairies in Texas. Once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, today there are less than 100 birds remaining in the wild and that population is only sustained through a significant captive breeding and release program.
I first became interested in the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken in 2008, shortly after moving to College Station, Texas. During my research on the local region, I learned that the two main populations of these birds, one on a small Nature Conservancy preserve in Houston and the main one at Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge (APCNWR), were within a couple hours of my home. I also discovered that a professor at Texas A&M had been integral in the early years of the captive breeding program.
Throughout the spring of 2008, I spent numerous mornings photographing a few captive birds at the Small Upland-bird Research Facility (SURF) at Texas A&M. These few birds were actually my first experience with prairie chickens and their amazing displays. Eventually, I was able to spend some time viewing the wild birds at the National Wildlife Refuge and even able to visit the captive breeding program at the Houston Zoo. By the end of the spring, I had an article published in the Texas Birds Annual, an annual magazine published by the Texas Ornithological Society.
The Attwater is technically not a full species, but actually a subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken, a much more common bird found farther to the north. They once were classified as a separate species, just like the Heath Hen, a now extinct Prairie Chicken that was abundant in New England in the 19th century. Today, the Attwater faces a similar fate, except for the support and recent success of the captive breeding program, which we will look at in a couple days.