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PRAIRIE CHICKENS

PRAIRIE CHICKENS. Three kinds of prairie chickens once occurred in Texas. They were the greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus), the lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus), and Attwater's prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido attwateri). The prairie-chicken genus belongs to the Phasianidae family (pheasant-like birds) in the order Galliformes (chicken-like birds). Like the bison, the prairie chicken was once a pervasive presence on the plains and entered the traditions of native Americans who lived there. Sioux Indians developed a dance that mimics the gestures made by the male birds during their mating ritual. With some variation in the three kinds, the prairie chicken is generally brown with chestnut on the neck. The tail, back, and paler underside are barred with alternate black and brown stripes. The bird is approximately fourteen inches long. The male weighs about two pounds and the female near 1½ pounds. The male has black tufts of feathers, a yellow comb above the eyes, and yellow or orange to red (in the lesser prairie chicken) air sacs, which are prominent on the side of the neck during the mating season. The male prairie chicken is known for his courtship display, or "booming," which takes place on display grounds called leks. Males gather on the grounds in late January or early February to attract females by strutting and calling. Breeding begins in late February, peaks in early March, and gradually decreases through April and early May. Booming grounds may be naturally occurring short-grass flats or artificially maintained areas such as roads, airport runways, or oil-well pads. As a preliminary to uttering his call, the male stretches his neck forward parallel to the ground with neck tufts pointed forward like horns. The tail is held vertically, and "the wings are extended downward and held firmly against the body and legs," giving a very strained and rigid appearance. "A short run forward is followed by vigorous stamping of the feet, which lasts only a few moments, but which under favorable conditions is distinctly audible for fifty feet or more. Inflation of the air sacs, which are actually but one sac with two lateral portions, is synchronized with the stamping. The first syllable of the booming is given before the stamping ends, the male quickly jerking his head downward as he begins the call and keeping it there until the sac is deflated." After the courtship period ends, the male loses his bright coloring and acquires the camouflage colors of the female until the next mating season. While the males continue their courtship performances, the female must select the nest site, lay, incubate and hatch eggs, and rear the young chicks alone.

Tall perennial grasses are an essential component of prairie-chicken range, providing protection from natural enemies and the elements. Cropland (maize, corn, peanuts, cotton, rice, and soybeans) is desirable, but only in conjunction with tallgrass prairie. Quality habitat for Attwater's prairie chicken declined from an estimated 457,135 acres in 1937 to less than 150,000 acres in 1995. The greater prairie chicken, largest of the three, was indigenous from northeastern Texas southwest along the Blackland Prairie possibly to Austin. Scarce by 1900 because of intensified agriculture, ever-increasing hunting, and urban pressure, the greater prairie chicken is now extinct in Texas. Some researchers suggest that the ultimate cause of its demise was the dust bowl of the 1930s. In 1993 there was discussion of reintroducing the greater prairie chicken into the state. The lesser prairie chicken, slightly smaller and lighter in color than the greater prairie chicken, ranged from the Texas Panhandle southward through portions of the Hill Country to the eastern Trans-Pecos. After 1945 the population decreased sharply, until only two disjunct populations remained, both in the Panhandle. In 1978 the total Texas population was estimated at 18,000 birds. From the late 1970s or early 1980s to 1995 the population declined to about 10,000, and the bird's habitat continued to deteriorate, largely because of agricultural development and brush control. The lesser prairie chicken benefited to some extent from a federal conservation reserve program instituted about 1985, in which participating farmers agreed to put highly erodible land back into grass for a period of ten years. In 1993 there was a two-day hunting season in Texas for the lesser prairie chicken, with a limit of two birds per hunter per day. The northeastern population, along the Oklahoma border, sustained an annual harvest of 2 to 3 percent, while the southwestern population, along the New Mexico border, sustained an annual harvest of about 10 to 15 percent. The smaller and lighter Attwater's prairie chicken, named for Henry Philemon Attwater, once inhabited six million acres of flat coastal prairie from southwestern Louisiana to near Brownsville, Texas. Prior to the twentieth century the population of the bird may have reached close to one million. Since that time, loss of habitat has drastically reduced the bird's numbers. Hunting at the turn of the twentieth century also contributed to the bird's decline in numbers. Parties of ten to twenty or more men would compete over a period of several days to a week or more, with the group killing the fewest birds paying the costs for all. Campsites often contained "ten or more piles containing upwards of one hundred birds left to rot. . . ."

In 1937 the Texas legislature passed a law banning the killing of any prairie chicken for a period of five years. By then the total number of Attwater's prairie chickens had been reduced to approximately 8,700 birds, all in Texas. Between 1937 and 1967 the area occupied by the bird shrank by one-half, to approximately 234,080 acres. The loss of suitable habitat, with the conversion of coastal prairie to grazing and other uses, the invasion of woody plants, and urbanization, continued to deplete the population. The number of Attwater's prairie chickens dropped to 3,560 by 1956, 1,335 in 1963, and 1,070 in 1967. In March 1967 the United States Fish and Wildlife Service listed Attwater's prairie chicken as an endangered species. In an effort to save the bird from extinction, 3,500 acres (1,380 hectares) were purchased in 1972 to establish the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge near Eagle Lake (Colorado County). The refuge, originally acquired through the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund, was expanded by federal purchase to about 8,000 acres (3,200 hectares) in 1985. In 1983 a team of biologists completed a comprehensive recovery plan, with the goal of increasing the population to 5,000 by the turn of the century. If such a figure were achieved, and if 22,230 additional acres of suitable habitat were being managed for the bird, consideration could be given to removing it from the endangered-species list. A major objective of the plan was to stimulate other agencies, institutions, and individuals to greater conservation efforts: improving habitat on private lands, forming satellite areas, and acquiring additional prairie-chicken habitat. In the late 1980s, however, the number of Attwater's prairie chickens was drastically reduced by adverse weather conditions, in combination with the continuing erosion of their habitat by urban and agricultural development. The total estimated population dropped from 926 in 1988 to 68 in 1995, raising the possibility that the bird might become extinct by the turn of the century. In 1989 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas A&M University, and Fossil Rim Wildlife Center planned a captive-breeding program in an effort to boost the population. After conducting a trial run with greater prairie chickens in 1991, wildlife officials attempted to raise Attwater's prairie chickens in captivity for the first time in 1992. That year, officials succeeded in raising five birds from eggs that had been laid in the wild. These five birds produced fifty eggs in captivity in 1993, but only one of the chicks hatched still survived in August of that year, along with another chick hatched from a wild egg. The captive-breeding program involved facilities at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, whose mission was to breed and raise the birds, and at Texas A&M University, where researchers sought to develop reintroduction strategies and techniques. In 1995 about 100 Attwater's prairie chickens were housed in captive propagation facilities at Fossil Rim, Texas A&M, and the Houston Zoo. In 1995 the population of Attwater's prairie chickens at the refuge was estimated to be about 10 (down from over 200 in 1986), while that for the state as a whole was estimated at about 68. The range of the bird had continued to shrink, from eight coastal counties in 1986 (Aransas, Austin, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Goliad, Refugio, and Victoria) to four in 1995 (Austin, Colorado, Galveston, and Refugio). In addition to the refuge, 4,600 acres of private land, comprising six parcels, were being leased and managed to provide suitable habitat for the bird. This leasing program was administered by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and was carried out under section 6 of the Endangered Species Act, with 75 percent of the funds coming from the federal government and 25 percent from the state. The preservation or reestablishment of large blocks of native prairie will be crucial to the survival of the Attwater's prairie chicken. Even in those counties (Colorado and Refugio) with more stable populations, extreme habitat alteration and disturbances such as hurricanes could cause drastic changes in population stability and may lead to the bird's extinction.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Austin American-Statesman, March 31, 1989, July 4, 1992. Paul A. Johnsgard, The Grouse of the World (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983). V. W. Lehmann, "The Attwater Prairie Chicken: Current Status and Restoration Opportunities," Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conferences 33 (1968). Valgene W. Lehmann, Attwater's Prairie Chicken: Its Life History and Management (Washington: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1941). John P. S. Mackenzie, Birds in Peril: A Guide to the Endangered Birds of the United States and Canada (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977). Heather Miller, "Vanishing with the Prairie," Texas Parks and Wildlife, November 1993.

Val W. Lehmann, Nancy Lehmann-Carssow, and Nova J. Silvy

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Val W. Lehmann, Nancy Lehmann-Carssow, and Nova J. Silvy, "PRAIRIE CHICKENS," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/tbp02), accessed September 21, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.