Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken Captive Breeding Facility
An Endangered Species Recovery Effort in Oklahoma by Sutton Avian Research Center
The Sutton Center has taken on a significant new conservation project – breeding the Attwater’s prairie-chicken for release! The Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken (APC) is one of the most endangered birds in North America, and it is essential to increase captive production of this species in order to provide enough birds that sustainable populations can be re-established in the wild. We are ready to give our best efforts to help with the recovery of this special bird.
Dangling on the edge of extinction for decades, this grassland grouse once inhabited six million acres of prairie along the Gulf Coast from Corpus Christi, Texas, north to the Bayou Teche area in Louisiana, and for some 75 miles inland.
As grasslands were consumed by human settlements, industries, agriculture, brushy vegetation, and possibly pesticide use on rice crops, the estimated population of close to one million birds about a century ago plummeted precipitously. It was listed as endangered in 1967, and by 1996 only 42 birds were left in the wild.
Attwater’s prairie-chickens are currently being kept in captivity at Houston, Caldwell, and Abilene Zoos, as well as Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Texas. These breeders are carefully managed genetically, and their offspring are released annually (286 in 2016) at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. However, with a relatively short life span (for most, about two years) and owing to flooding, red imported fire ants, and other predators, only a limited number of APCs are able to successfully reproduce in the wild. A main objective in the APC Recovery Plan is to increase propagation and release efforts to boost wild populations to self-sustaining levels. This is where the Sutton Center has work to do!
There is now a flock of Greater Prairie-Chickens testing out the design of the first buildings at Sutton Center’s prairie-chicken breeding facility. As the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken is critically endangered, and with so few remaining birds, we are initially using Greater Prairie-Chickens as surrogates to develop our facility and procedures.
In May 2015, with direction from Dr. John Toepfer, we located prairie-chicken nests in northcentral Nebraska and collected 41 eggs. (The hens later recycled and produced second wild clutches.)
Half of the eggs were brought back to Oklahoma in an airplane, the other half in an incubator on top of a pillow in a pickup. Forty eggs hatched successfully, and those prairie-chickens are now parents of another 54 chicks that hatched in 2016. Different behavioral treatments and breeding methodologies will be tested on offspring from 2016.
The Sutton Center’s breeding facility team is working carefully when designing the enclosures. For example, netting separates the prairie-chickens from walls and frames, since they are very powerful and fast flyers, and can kill themselves by flying into hard objects.
The captive breeding of disappearing prairie-chickens or other grouse will not in itself solve the problems that these birds are currently facing. This must be accomplished in combination with habitat reclamation, management, and conservation efforts. We hope that what we learn from the APC breeding program will also be useful in achieving higher survival and reproduction in the wild of other captive bred Galliformes like bobwhite quail, lesser prairie-chickens, and other grouse as needed.