Attwater Prairie Chicken Festival
When: April 14-15, starting at 7 a.m.
Where: Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, 1206 APC-NWR Road,
What: Viewing of Attwater’s prairie chickens, bird walks, plant walks, refuge tours, Native American dancing, and readings by nature writer Mary O. Parker.
More information: www.fws.gov/refuge/attwater_prairie_chicken
Hurricane Harvey was devastating in many ways, but what few people realize is it pushed a critically endangered bird species very close to the brink of extinction.
The Attwater’s prairie chicken once flourished across the prairies of coastal Texas. Now there are just a few left and the floods of the last two years have nearly decimated the population. Two years ago there were 126 Attwater’s prairie chickens at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, located between Sealy and Eagle Lake. Today there are 12.
“Spring of 2016was the highest count that we have had here in over 20 years. We had 126 birds in that spring count,” said Acting Refuge Manager John Magera.
He said the late summer releases from captive breeding programs really boosted the numbers of the birds living in the wild. Then Mother Nature turned her back on the prairie chickens.
“The Tax Day flood hit in April 2016 and that put 16 inches of rain in the San Bernard basin just north of the refuge. … That put about a third of the refuge under water,” he said. “The rest of the refuge was completely saturated and it flooded a lot of nests. We lost all of our nests that season, so no production here on the refuge. It affected the release program because the predators and the prey all congregate on the high ground when there’s a lot of water standing on the prairie, so it makes it tough for the prey. Our count the following spring, the spring of 2017, was 42 birds.
“We had another release season under way and we were pretty well in the middle of that release season when Harvey hit. And so we suffered more losses because of that and 23 inches of rain at the refuge. And following Harvey and this wet winter and all of the poor conditions we’ve had on the prairie, our count for this spring is 12.”
Between wild birds and those in captive breeding programs, Magera estimates the population of the Attwater’s prairie chicken to be around 200.
“We’ve seen this kind of decline before. We had the drought of 2011 and after 2011 we were knocked back from over 100 birds down to something in the 20s and we were able to build back after 2011 to the point we were in 2016,” he said. “It seems dramatic and it seems, some people say, depressing, but that’s what we do here, we work through these problems and try to continue to add birds to the population so that someday they can become self-sufficient.”
He said it will take the right combination of good weather and productive nesting seasons to help increase the bird population.
“Without the captive breeding program we wouldn’t have any birds in the wild,” he said. “This species would have been extinct years ago. So we really rely on the partners we have at the Houston Zoo and Fossil Rim Wildlife Center and the Caldwell Zoo in Tyler. They do a great job of keeping birds in captivity year-round and producing eggs and producing chicks and getting them healthy and prepared for release. We hope this summer to have another 200 to 300 birds that we can release, not just here but also down in Goliad, which is another release location that we have for this bird.”
Magera remains optimistic about the future of the Attwater’s prairie chicken despite their population size.
“Try not to get married to the numbers with the Attwaters because it goes up and down so much,” he said. “We talk today in March and there’s 200 birds. If you sit down and have this conversation with me in September there may be 600 or 700 birds. If we had 1,000 birds or 2,000 birds, our work isn’t going to change. We’re still doing the same thing. If we have 10 birds our work is still the same. We look at it as a long-term project. It’s going to take a long time to get this species recovered. We know that.”
The fact that there are a dozen birds on the 10,000-acre refuge means there may not be much to see when the annual Attwater Prairie Chicken Festival is held April 14-15. The festival is a big draw each year at the refuge where people come to see the male birds at the height of the booming (mating) season.
The mating ritual features the males inflating their yellow-orange air sacs, raising the earlike pinnae on their heads, spreading their wings and tails, and rapidly tapping their feet on the ground. Their mesmerizing birdsong is very similar to a pigeon.
This year Magera suspects the tour might be a one-bird act. Lately there has been a single male that has acted aggressively toward vehicles. He is not afraid to approach them while doing his ritual dance.
Even if the Attwaters are a no-show, there is still plenty to see and do that weekend at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. Vans will begin taking guests to the viewing platform from 7-9:30 a.m., depending on the weather. There will be a bird walk at 9:45 a.m., as well as native plant walks and refuge tours. A Native American family will perform a prairie chicken dance on Saturday, and noted nature writer Mary O. Parker will give talks on both days. It’s also a great opportunity to see natural prairie. Less than 1 percent of the prairie in Texas remains.
“It’s a well-kept secret for a lot of people from Katy and Rosenberg and Sugar Land because it’s not far to get here and they’re going against traffic to come here. A lot of folks can get here quicker than they think they can,” Magera said.