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Researchers watch, wait on endangered birds (w/video)

By Sara Sneath
May 6, 2014 at 12:06 a.m.
Updated May 7, 2014 at 12:07 a.m.

An Attwater's prairie chicken flaps its wings at its home on the Refugio-Goliad prairie. There are currently about eight of the endangered birds living on the prairie.

BACKGROUND

More than 1 million Attwater's prairie chickens lived on 6 million acres of Texas and Louisiana gulf coastal prairies in the 19th century. Urban development, expanding industry and plowing native grasslands into pasture and croplands fragmented the land. Less than 1 percent of coastal prairies remain, and the Attwater's prairie chickens, which now only exist in Texas, are endangered.

Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

GOLIAD - Two male Attwater's prairie chickens are squatting on the prairie in Jay Kelso's line of sight. They're there. He knows they're there, as does the hawk perched on a nearby branch.

The endangered birds are exotic looking when visible. Their bodies have a light and dark tan striped pattern, like the chest of a bobwhite quail. They have yellow patches of skin on their necks, short blackish fanned tail feathers and yellow eyebrows.

But when they're hiding, as they will with a hawk present, the oddities that make them stand out blend with the dry native grasses. One moment, you see them. The next, they've disappeared like the 3D images in Magic Eye stereograms.

Kelso has been watching the birds for about 10 to 12 hours a day for the past four months. He's the Attwater's prairie chicken specialist for The Nature Conservancy. But during nesting season, his role is that of an anxious father.

"I think it's one of those things where you have to have a passion for it. I've always had a deep feeling for the prairie chickens, even as a kid. When I started with this project, I wanted to give all I had to get them to recover and be back on the prairie," Kelso said.

There are only about eight Attwater's prairie chickens left on the Refugio-Goliad prairie and about 100 at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, northeast of Eagle Lake. Loss of coastal prairie habitat to housing, industry and agriculture has been the greatest contributing factor to the bird's demise.

For the past four months, the male birds have been returning to the same patch of short grass at sunset and sundown to put it all on the line and dance their way into the hearts of female grouse.

The endangered bird's mating dance, called booming, looks similar to the Plains Indian dances modeled after it. Feathers situated above the bird's head perk up to form a headdress as the bird stamps its feet, lowers its head and inflates the yellow pouches on the side of its neck all the while making a low sort of "whur-ru-rrr."

By late-April, the four female birds were bred. Kelso has found two nests, which he's built a 3-foot-tall 50-by-50-foot fence around to keep out snakes and skunks, which can eat the bird's eggs. Though females are usually bred by late-April, the male grouse continue to visit the booming ground till mid-May.

The continued booming is nature's way to allow time for females to return to be bred again, in the case that they lose their nests to predation.

Kelso expects the first nest to hatch within the next 10 days. On average, nests carry about 12 eggs, which hatch after about 24 days.

When the eggs hatch, Kelso will take down the fence to let the chicks hop around in search of small, soft-bodied insects to eat, such as grasshoppers.

But his job doesn't end there.

The two weeks following the chicks hatching, Kelso will take vegetation and insect samples from locations near the hens. It will likely be mid-June before he's concluded the survey.

"It's kind of nice when I get to the point where I can go fishing," Kelso said.

Researchers at the Attwater refuge are going through the same bird song and dance.

"We're kind of in that mode of really intensely managing hens and nests and making sure that everything goes as smoothly as possible," said Terry Rossignol, the refuge manager.

Two of the 18 active nests on the refuge have hatched, he said.

Historically, 25 percent of chicks survive. The refuge treated for fire ants, which compete for the same food as the chicks, last fall in hopes of reaching the 25 percent survival rate.

"There are other factors out there. The owls, the hawks, the snakes, the skunks and things like that unfortunately still like chicken. The other factor we're concerned with is things are getting pretty dry out."

Without rain, there are fewer insects and dewberries, which the grouse feed upon. On the flip side, too much rain can flood nests in low-lying areas.

It will be late-June before the refuge will know how successful the breeding season has been, Rossignol said. Until then, it's a matter of watching nature's show.

"We're just kind of in that waiting parent kind of mode," Rossignol said. Once the free-roaming bird activity begins to settle down, a population of captive bred birds from Fossil Rim Wildlife Center and the Houston, Abilene and Caldwell zoos will be brought to the reserve.

The Houston Zoo currently has 300 eggs waiting to hatch in captivity, said Hannah Bailey, curator of birds at the Houston Zoo.

The survival rate of captive chicks, which will be released on the reserve when they are about 6 weeks old, is about 70 to 80 percent, Bailey said.

"That's usually when they start becoming more independent," she said.

Captive birds are no longer being released on the Refugio-Goliad prairie.

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