Get a Bird’s Eye View of Endangered Attwater’s Prairie Chickens at NASA’s Johnson Space Center!

You won’t see the Attwater’s prairie chicken here on zoo grounds, but you can see them now on a new exclusive web cam! Since 1995, the Houston Zoo has raised and released over 1100 Attwater’s prairie chickens into the wild. As just one of many efforts the Zoo is involved in to save wildlife, our zoo keepers breed these animals behind the scenes and release them into the wild to ensure Attwater’s prairie chicken populations will recover and thrive for years to come.

Native to Texas, this small, brown bird calls the coastal prairie grasslands home. This species is best known for “booming” – a dance done by males to attract females during mating season in which they stomp their feet and fill the orange air sacs on the sides of their neck, creating a sound that can be heard up to half a mile away! 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. The Houston Zoo manages the captive breeding program for the Attwater’s prairie chicken. We have breeding facilities both behind the scenes at the Zoo and at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.  When the birds hatch and grow large enough, they are slowly introduced and then released into the wild, where they will support the already existing populations.

Last year, the Attwater’s prairie chickens released into the wild faced challenges similar to those encountered by fellow 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. These amazing birds face many threats once they are in the wild, but robust captive breeding programs around the state serve as a safety net, giving this species a fighting chance.

It is officially hatching season for our Attwater’s prairie chickens, and over 500 eggs are currently being incubated to raise and release back into the wild thanks to the amazing bird department here at the Zoo! Post Harvey, the habitat at NASA has rebounded and is in the best condition anyone has seen in a long time. It would seem as though things are looking up for our feathered friends this year, thanks to a dedicated network of organizations and zoo goers like you that are helping to save wildlife each time you visit us here at the Zoo. Don’t forget to check out these magnificent birds at their NASA habitat via our new Attwater’s prairie chicken webcam, and stay tuned for more updates!

Endangered Species Day

Endangered Species Day is an opportunity for people of all ages to learn about the importance of protecting endangered species as well as everyday actions they can take to help protect them. The Houston Zoo, and other AZA-accredited institutions around the world, have united to bring awareness to the global conservation effort to save endangered species and their habitats in the wild.

What makes a species endangered? According to the International Union for Conservation in Nature (IUCN)

An Endangered species is a species which has been categorized by the IUCN Red List as likely to become extinct. “Endangered” is the second most severe conservation status for wild populations in the IUCN’s schema after Critically Endangered.

We have a number of endangered species at the Houston Zoo and some of them might be your favorite animals! Did you know Asian elephants, orangutans, and gorillas are all endangered? The Zoo’s Conservation team works with 30 conservation partners in 16 different countries to help these animals and others including the Grevy’s zebra, shark and ray species, cheetahs, and more! Global partners use our conservation resources for funding, business development, and even event planning to connect their local cultures to the animals they’re trying to save.

In addition to our global conservation efforts, the Houston Zoo works diligently to help three local species and increase their chances of long-term survival.

toadLocal conservation projects happen behind-the-scenes at the Houston Zoo where dedicated keepers work with these animals daily to increase their numbers in the wild. One such animal is the Attwater’s prairie chicken. This dynamic bird used to call the plains of Texas home, but now only about 100 exist in the wild. The good news is, 362 eggs are currently being incubated to raise and release back into the wild thanks to the amazing bird department here at the Zoo!

A mature, male Attwater’s prairie chicken at the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge.

The juvenile birds are released at the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge to grow to maturity and repopulate the area. Last year 176 chickens were released!

Similarly, the Houston toad is no longer in Houston, but its numbers are growing thanks to the work of the Herpetology department and volunteers at the Zoo. The Herpetology department at the Houston Zoo currently has 700,000 eggs ready to be released in the Bastrop area. In 2015 they released 600,000 eggs in cases that protect the fragile eggs until they become tadpoles.

Local wildlife like the critically endangered Houston toad can benefit when we reuse water.
Local wildlife like the critically endangered Houston toad can benefit when we reuse water.

So far, 2016 has been a successful year thanks to those 600,000 eggs. In past years, mating calls of Houston Toads have been scarce, but were more prominent this year. A very good sign for long-term sustainability!

Finally, the Zoo partners with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help save sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. Our veterinarians provided medical care for 124 turtles in 2015 and 17 in 2016 to-date.

A common green sea turtle rehabs in the Houston Zoo Kipp Aquarium.

All five species of sea turtle – Kemp’s ridley, green, loggerhead, leatherback, and hawksbill – found in the Gulf are endangered.

What can you do to help?

Attwater’s prairie chicken 

A male Attwater's prairie chicken
A male Attwater’s prairie chicken

Come to the Zoo! Each time you visit, a portion of your ticket goes towards our conservation programs – including the Attwater’s prairie chicken!

Houston toad 

Recycle your old batteries. Batteries leak harmful chemicals into waterways when they aren’t disposed of properly. Since amphibians, like the Houston toad, have sensitive skin that absorbs the environment around them, recycling batteries will help keep them healthy!

Sea turtle 

Keep an eye out for green sea turtles who often wash up "cold stunned" during these sudden temperature drops. Call 1-866-TURTLE-5 to report a sighting of a cold stunned turtle.
Keep an eye out for green sea turtles who often wash up “cold stunned” during these sudden temperature drops. Call 1-866-TURTLE-5 to report a sighting of a cold stunned turtle.

Use a reusable bag when you go shopping. Single-use plastic bags are often confused by sea turtles as sea jellies – one of their favorite foods! Using a reusable bag when you go to the store will keep these single-use bags out of the environment and keep sea turtles out of harm’s way.

Want to know more about what you can do to help save animals in the wild? TAKE ACTION

Sabinga's Updates: Zoo Staff Visits Attwater's Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Range

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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.

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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.

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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 .

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Jeremy’s wet foot was full with mud!

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.

 


 

Sabinga-Profile-Resize
Sabinga collecting marine debris in Galveston

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!

Attwater's prairie chicks are here!

The Houston Zoo has already hatched 209 Attwater’s prairie chicks this Spring!

APC Eggs 2014-0001-2318

All of these guys have made it through to the next stage of their lives and will stay with us here at the Zoo until they are ready for release as strong juveniles into the wild!

apc april

Attwater’s prairie chickens are vanishing from the coastal prairies of Texas. It is estimated that less than 100 of these birds are left in the wild, so the Houston Zoo has breeding facilities both behind the scenes at the Zoo and at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to help revive the wild populations.  When the birds hatch and grow large enough, they are slowly introduced and then released into the wild, where they will support the already existing populations.

If you are inspired to give these chicks a stronger chance for survival, help them out by learning more, or even donating!

Let the Season Begin: It's Attwater's Prairie Chicken Time!

It’s our biggest and best year yet for breeding a very special local species, the critically endangered Attwater’s Prairie Chicken! We’re very lucky to have gotten a record number of eggs from our flock so far, with more to come.

The very first Attwater's prairie chicken egg of the breeding season!
The very first Attwater’s prairie chicken egg of the breeding season! We do something called candling the eggs, which means looking inside of them, to be sure the future chicks are healthy and progressing properly.

Last year’s breeding season was an incredible success, so we can’t wait to see what this year has in store for us. These eggs will begin to hatch in late April, so get ready to see tons of adorable baby chicks in the very near future!

Attwater's Prairie Chicken chick photo by Mollie Coym
Attwater’s Prairie Chicken chick photo by Mollie Coym

Considering there are less than 100 Attwater’s prairie chickens left in the wild, a successful breeding season at the Houston Zoo is essential for the survival of the species. We partner with a number of other organizations to ensure this humble grouse doesn’t go extinct.

Male Attwater's Prairie Chicken
Male Attwater’s Prairie Chicken

The Houston Zoo is involved in a number of ways, the most important of which is breeding animals in a protected environment that helps bring out their natural behaviors at our Johnson Space Center facility (thanks, NASA!), hatching the eggs at the Zoo, caring for the chicks, and then releasing those young birds into the wild at protected sites once they get old enough.

jsc_chicken
Male Attwater’s prairie chicken at Johnson Space Center – thank you, NASA, for helping us protect this critically endangered species!

Letting people know that the Attwater’s prairie chicken exists is also one of our most important jobs – and if you’re reading this, you are already contributing toward this animal’s survival. If people don’t know what the issues are, they can’t care. And if people care, the species won’t stand a chance! If you’d like to learn more and share with your friends, check out Houston Zoo Bird Keeper Danny Keel’s talk about the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken and our efforts to save it!

Attwater Talk – Danny Keel – Houston Zoo from Coastal Prairie Partnership on Vimeo

Attwater's Prairie Chicken Breeding Season Was a Success!

It all started on March 19, when the very first egg of the season was laid by an Attwater’s prairie chicken at the Houston Zoo, 2 weeks earlier than expected. We knew it was going to be a wild ride this season, and the Birds Department began gearing up for what would end up being one of the most successful breeding seasons ever for this critically endangered grouse.

A male Attwater's prairie chicken
A male Attwater’s prairie chicken

This bird, native to the Texas Gulf Coast, was once thriving on the coastal prairies, but now there are less than 100 birds left in the wild. We work with US Fish & Wildlife, Texas Parks & Wildlife, and NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and 3 other Texas zoos in an effort to bring this bird back from the brink of extinction.

One of the ways we do this is to incubate eggs at the Zoo, keep the chicks healthy as they hatch, and gradually introduce them into the outdoors so they can eventually be released at Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge near Sealy, Texas.

 

This season, we achieved some major goals that will help the program continue to grow. With generous assistance from the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation, we built 8 new pens near the Houston Zoo Vet Hospital to get the birds used to an outside environment after hatching and growing up a bit.

Progress photo of Attwater's prairie chicken pen construction
Progress photo of Attwater’s prairie chicken pen construction

The first 10 days of a chick’s life are the most important for determining whether it will be healthy and able to survive in the wild. We worked with the University of North Texas on genetic pairings of adults to make sure the chicks would be as healthy as possible, and it paid off. Our survival rate was the highest we’ve ever had.

The annual Name a Chick campaign is another way that guests can get involved in prairie chicken conservation. This year, 85 chicks were named, resulting in $4,200 in donations for the Attwater’s prairie chicken program.

If that's not a cute chick, we don't know what is!
If that’s not a cute chick, we don’t know what is!

Education is a huge part of helping an endangered species survive. We want to educate the public on how important it is to protect these animals by knowing they are there and to keep the prairie pristine for these animals and others that live in their habitat. We also want to keep learning about these animals (our work is never done) so we can continue to have success in breeding them and releasing them into the wild.

The coastal prairie, the native habitat of the Attwater's prairie chicken, is important to protect if we want these animal to thrive
The coastal prairie, the native habitat of the Attwater’s prairie chicken, is important to protect if we want these animal to thrive

And to continue our education and the education of others that work with prairie chickens, we just completed an animal care manual for the Attwater’s prairie chickens that can be used for other prairie grouse in the US that are facing increased threats and habitat loss (yep, this prairie chicken is technically a grouse). We also recently hosted an egg incubation workshop for professionals in the field so they can gain the skills needed to help out.

The Attwater’s prairie chickens that were born at our Zoo this year are literally being released out into the Refuge as we speak. This morning, we visited some of the lucky birds to watch them stroll out into their new home, equipped with bands and tracking collars so we can monitor their success.

For more on the Attwater’s prairie chicken and our efforts to send them back to the wild, visit the Houston Zoo website.

Attwater's prairie chickens released into the wild!

The Houston Zoo has been raising chicks this year to pump up the wild population with some hearty and happy Attwater’s prairie chickens (APCs), and yesterday we were able to reap the reward for all the efforts!

Yesterday, Houston Zoo Staff and US Fish and Wildlife headed out to the APC National Wildlife refuge to release some APCs that were raised at the Zoo. They will begin their life in the wild and hopefully strengthen the population by having chicks of their own!

All of the birds are radio-collared and tagged so that USFWS can monitor the populations and keep track of the general health of the birds.

The birds were initially released into these ‘soft pens’ to get them comfortable with the prairie land, and then after a few weeks were fully released into the wild. Good luck to them!

APC Release soft pens
A few APCs leaving the soft pen for the first time! The soon flew off and started their adventure in the open prairie!
APC release prairie chickens
A group of APCs that just walked out of the pens, checking out their new surroundings.

APC release prairie chickens in field

 

 

We're releasing Attwater's prairie chickens into the wild!

 

We’ve been raising these adorable chicks for the past few months, and for some of them, they’ve already gotten big enough to be ready to start their life in the wild.

In the picture below, you can see the same bird on 4/22 and on 7/16. This juvenile looks a lot like a fully grown Attwater’s prairie chicken (APC), but is about 2/3 the size of an adult.

 

 

We have released 37 chicks so far in three release events since June and are looking forward to another release coming up next week, followed by at least two more releases in August!

We’ll keep an eye on these guys individually as they grow in the wild by recording their actions through radio collars and fancy foot jewelry (identification tags).

 

We wish them a great life in their natural habitat in the wild, and hope they feel comfortable enough to have some chicks of their own!

 

 

The Houston Zoo's Attwater's Prairie Chickens are getting ready to go back to the wild!

We still have Attwater’s prairie chicken eggs in incubators here at the Zoo, but the oldest chicks are now 45 days old.   Because these birds are being reintroduced into the wild our staff is focused on encouraging as much natural behavior as possible to prepare them for prairie life.

  

The oldest chicks are now getting more vegetation in their diet, so that they recognize their wild diet.    And, their outdoor enclosures are filled with branches and bushes to encourage their instinct to hide and protect themselves from predators that threaten their survival in the wild.    

We will start reintroducing Attwater’s prairie chickens in June and July.  In the meantime, we will keep everyone posted on their development here at the Zoo, so stay tuned!

If you are interested in helping us save this species from extinction click here.

Attwater's prairie chickens are increasing in numbers at the Houston Zoo

Houston Zoo incubators full of Attwater’s prairie chicken eggs

The incubators at the Houston Zoo are full of Attwater’s prairie chicken eggs collected and carefully transported from our facility at the Johnson Space Center. 

The chick nursery is full of peeping Attwater’s chicks!  The first group of the oldest chicks are already old enough to move to their outside accommodations.  They are growing up before our eyes!

 In a few months time all of these chicks will be out in the wild again!

Stay tuned for more on how the Houston Zoo is saving animals in the wild!

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