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Zoo News Blog

Good News: We are Saving a Local Bird from Extinction

It’s #EndangeredSpeciesDay and earlier this morning, you met Amber, zookeeper and APC recovery program coordinator, and saw some of the amazing work we’re doing behind the scenes to restore the Attwater’s prairie chicken population, including raising chicks here at the Zoo before they’re big enough to be released back into the wild.

Since 1994, the Houston Zoo has raised and released over 1,100 Attwater’s prairie chickens into the wild. This number continues to grow, as an additional 164 Attwater’s prairie chickens were released in 2019, and the 2020 breeding season is now well underway. Check out a male booming during breeding season, which begins in late February and tapers off in June.

A male Attwater’s prairie chicken

With historic populations numbering close to 1,000,000 birds, it is estimated that less than 100 of these birds are left in the wild today. The Houston Zoo manages the captive breeding program for the Attwater’s prairie chicken. We have breeding facilities at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC). During breeding season, we incubate the eggs and raise the chicks here at the Zoo until they are large enough to go back to NASA, before being released back into the wild and joining existing populations. Just last week the bird department was able to share photos of a clutch of prairie chicken eggs that recently hatched with students in one of our school programs!

Female Attwater’s prairie chicken and chicks at NASA

Because their natural response is to hide and then flee from any perceived threat, the hustle and bustle of Houston can be a challenging environment for the birds to process, which is why a special partnership with NASA at the JSC was established. Although the birds themselves are cared for by Houston Zoo staff, the breeding flock of Attwater’s prairie chickens resides in a series of specialized pens located in a quiet field at JSC. These pens first held birds in 2005 and have been instrumental in increasing the success of the program because they more closely resemble the birds’ natural habitat. Zookeepers work closely with the Gulf Coast chapter of Master Naturalists to remove invasive plants from the pens and plant native grasses for the birds to shelter in, turning the pens into miniature native prairies.

A few years ago, the Attwater’s prairie chickens released into the wild faced challenges similar to those encountered by many Texans as the release site in Goliad County took a direct hit from Hurricane Harvey. The eye of the storm passed directly over or within a few miles of the release site, and the lingering rains flooded most of the Attwater’s historic range. Thankfully, the habitat has since rebounded and is in the best condition anyone has seen in a long time.

While these amazing birds face many threats once they are in the wild, robust captive breeding programs around the state serve as a safety net, giving this species a fighting chance. In addition to protecting Attwater’s prairie chickens in the wild, the Houston Zoo works to save other Texas species like the Houston toad and several sea turtle species. Through our partnership with KPRC Channel 2, we had the opportunity to highlight our work with a ‘Saving Wildlife: Texas’ special that aired last summer.

We cannot continue to save Texas wildlife without you. With our gates still closed, your support is more critical than ever. Please support the Zoo’s Emergency Zoo Fund to help us continue our work to connect communities with animals and inspire action to save wildlife.