I got to accompany Dr. Joe Flanagan Houston Zoo vet and other Zoo staff to the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), located approximately 90 kilometers west of Houston, Texas. This refuge is home to last population of Attwater’s Prairie Chicken. They are a stocky brown, strongly barred grouse with lighter colored lines with short, rounded and dark neck. The Attwater’s Prairie Chicken has undergone rapid declines, and has already disappeared from a number of U.S. states in which was formerly found, and only less than 100 in the wild and only found in Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).
The Houston Zoo is working together with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and other wildlife organizations to protect the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken from extinction. The Zoo also works hard to educate the community about the plight of this rare species. The Zoo breeds and raises this rare bird on Zoo grounds and rears the chicks until they are big enough to release them into the wild. Houston Zoo bird staff take them to the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge to start their life in the wild. U.S. Fish and Wildlife closely monitors them in the refuge. This shows the importance of the partnership between the Zoo and the government the same as how Save the Elephants works closely with the community and the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Prairie Chickens are endangered because their habitat has disappeared – their tall grass has been plowed for farmland and covered by cities. Their breeding habitat has been challenged by heavy grazing by cattle, although some cattle ranches maintain good grassland habitat suitable for them. Many people in this area still do not know how special prairie habitat is and how close to extinction this species is.
Loss of the habitat was prime reason for downfall of the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken. Females lay a dozen eggs and they take a period of 3 weeks to hatch, only 30 percent of nest escape predators that include, red fire ants, coyotes, snakes, skunks and raccoons.
Houston Zoo together with U.S. Fish and Wildlife fitted radio transmitter collars on birds they release into the wild for close monitoring. These collars are very interesting – they are small enough that they do not affect the bird weight-wise while flying.
I got to join the Houston Zoo team to replace a radio collar on an individual. To my surprise the bird that we had to replace the collar was from the Houston zoo. I saw the I.D. bracelet that is put on every bird reintroduced into the wild. This experience was magical for me because I thought radio collaring was only for large predators and mammals. I was excited to join the team, and I was surprised at how difficult it was. The collaring is done at night when it’s dark, in the tall grass, and swampy and muddy ground. We had to be careful of pot holes in the ground and snakes .
Collaring a prairie chicken was even tougher than collaring an elephant. Collaring two prairie chickens took us more than three hours! Sometimes we got lost because the prairie is so flat and it made it hard to navigate.
In my many years with Save the Elephants I have collared many elephants so that their movements can be traced, their populations counted, and poaching operations can be thwarted. This work continues to take place in the Kibodo, Samburu, and Mount Kenya regions in order to conserve elephants. But, this work with the prairie chicken was very inspiring, because many of the Attwater’s Prairie Chickens in the refuge are hatched at captive breeding programs at a few U.S. zoos including the Houston Zoo to conserve the species.
The Houston Zoo is excited to welcome a new intern who comes to us all the way from Kenya, in East Africa. Sabinga is in the United States participating in the Community College Initiative Program (CCIP). The Community College Initiative Program is a program of the U.S. Department of State, administered by Northern Virginia Community College onbehalf of the Community College Consortium (CCC) in partnership with Houston Community College. While participating in this program, he will join us at the zoo as an intern to learn all about what a modern-day zoo is like! Sabinga is already part of the conservation community as he has been working with Save the Elephants in Kenya for over 8 years. He will be documenting his experiences at the Zoo and we will share his thoughts with you here on our blog! Stay tuned for more!