About an hour’s drive outside of Houston, the sun is rising, and so are the Attwater’s prairie chickens. Each April, the male birds inflate canary-yellow air sacs on either side of their necks, then bob up and down, stamp the ground, and emit loud booming noises—all in an attempt to woo females. It’s an impressive display for a two-pound bird, so much so that people travel from as far away as Australia each year to see it.
This awkward dance is crucial to the species’ survival. According to this year’s count, the entire wild population of Attwater’s prairie chickens, which are actually more grouse than chicken, stands at just 42 birds. The endangered little boomers could be just one bad breeding year away from extinction.
In fact, the whole subspecies nearly got swept away this time last year when areas of Texas received between eight and twelve inches of rain in just eight hours, causing the nearby San Bernard River to surge across the prairie chicken’s habitat.
“These birds nest on the ground,” says Terry Rossignol, manager of the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Refuge. “The eggs were literally floating in the water. So we really had absolutely no reproduction last year.”
While flooding can wash away the bounty of all that dancing at a moment’s notice, the chicken’s current circumstances are a result of something far less sudden: habitat loss. According to Rossignol, a million birds once waddled across seven million acres of coastal prairie in Texas and Louisiana. But over the past century, approximately 99 percent of that habitat has disappeared. It’s been tilled into rice fields, paved over by Houston and its suburbs, and overrun by invasive McCartney roses and Chinese tallow trees.
Today the Attwater’s prairie chicken exists in just two areas, the national wildlife refuge Rossignol manages and a 4,000-acre plot of private land about 120 miles to the southwest. But even with endangered species protections from the federal government and some 15,000 acres of protected habitat, these populations are far from safe.
“This is a bird that’s at the bottom of the food chain,” says Rossignol. “Unfortunately, everybody likes chicken.”
White-tailed hawks, coyotes, bobcats, and skunks are all capable of gobbling up an adult chicken, and the chicks and eggs are easy pickings for coral snakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads. But the biggest threat to the birds may actually be something rather tiny.
Like many states across the American South, Texas is inundated with the red imported fire ant. These voracious predators eat just about anything they can sink their mandibles into, and their impact on the coastal prairie’s ecosystem is what causes the most problems for Attwater’s prairie chickens.
Rossignol says his team first noticed something was wrong around 2009 while scouting for prairie chicken nests. “The chicks were dying at the nest within a week or 10 days of hatching,” he says.
The problem? The chicks couldn’t get enough to eat, because fire ants were eating too many insects in the area. (We know this because Rossignol and his team did experiments in which they fed newborn chicks loads of crickets and watched as they survived their first weeks without a problem.) Fortunately, the team has been able to beat back the ant invasion over the last three years by dropping granular poison from a fixed-wing aircraft. The ants collect the poison, feed it to their queens, and then disappear belowground. But because ant colonies are always on the move looking for new territory, the process must be repeated every year if the birds are to survive.
The Attwater’s Prairie Chicken Recovery Team also goes out each spring after the chicken dances are over to set up fences around mother birds and their nests. Rossignol says the barriers aren’t foolproof, but they discourage most ground-dwelling predators, like snakes and skunks. In fact, he says the enclosed prairie chickens fledge at a rate of about 69 to 70 percent, compared with just 35 to 36 percent for the unfenced.
Yet with so few birds left, a little bad luck could easily wipe out the species. This is why several local zoos have helped supplement the wild population with chickens born and bred in captivity since 1992. Still, even if the managers keep releasing 300 birds a year, the vast majority of them will be dead by next spring.
“Very few of them live to see their second birthday, and that’s just part of their biology. There’s not a whole lot we can do about that,” says Rossignol.
So the conservationists just soldier on. If they keep helping the birds reproduce in the wild and continue adding more captive birds each year, eventually the population just may grow large enough so a single rainstorm, disease outbreak, or influx of ants won’t be able knock it out.
“It’s just one of those things,” says Rossignol. “If we don’t do it, who would?”
This year’s bobbing and stamping and booming have finished, and only time will tell whether the recent visitors to the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken Festival have seen the chickens’ last dance, or perhaps have witnessed a colorful step in the recovery of a species.
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