Houston Zoo Attwater's Prairie Chickens Thriving in the Wild!

Last week, staff from the Houston Zoo conservation, veterinary and bird departments assisted in Attwater’s prairie chicken field work at the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge.  US Fish and Wildlife staff drove us out into the refuge in the dark of the night.  We stopped and parked the vehicles at the precise location they had tracked birds to earlier in the day.  Never having seen an Attwater’s prairie chicken in the wild before, I was very excited to trek off into the dark prairie with the US Fish and Wildlife staff member, Mike Morrow. He carried his radio telemetry equipment, I carried the net and another Houston Zoo staff member followed ready to carry the captured bird back to the vehicles to be processed.   

Each captive bird that is released into the wild is fitted with a radio collar that is used to track the birds movements.  Radio telemetry equipment is then used to track and capture specific individuals.  Each bird that was captured was examined and blood and fecal samples were taken in an effort to monitor their health.   The birds were then re-released where they were captured in the refuge.

Houston Zoo staff holding wild Attwater’s prairie chicken for examination.

It is beautiful on the prairie at night.  No city lights means a clear starry night sky and the only sounds were our feet making contact with the prairie vegetation, the birds’ wings pounding the air as we flushed them from their roosting spots and the eerie coyote calls in the distance.    We captured the first several birds relatively quickly, but the 5th bird proved to be a bit more of a challenge.   This particular bird would not let Mike get within 6 feet of her, and we made 6 attempts before deciding to give up on her.  As we began to reorient ourselves to get back to the vans, Mike revealed his feeling of defeat over the failed mission to capture this bird.  I told him I felt this was a great example of the will of this species to survive.   This animal has a fighting chance with the many predators it will face if we can’t even sneak up on it.  He whole heartedly agreed with this perspective and enthusiastically carried on with this essential species-saving work.

We assisted with the capture of 15 birds and to our delight 2 of them were raised at the Houston Zoo.  The Houston Zoo has been working with the Attwater’s prairie chicken recovery effort since 2004, so seeing an animal that has been raised at the Houston Zoo, thriving in the wild is a magnificent experience.  This is another wonderful reminder of the important role the Houston Zoo plays in the race to save species.  For more about this awesome local recovery program and others at the Houston Zoo click here.


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