COLLEGE STATION — Earth Day will mean birth day for about 10 Attwater’s prairie chicken, one of the most endangered species in the world.
The chicks are expected to begin pecking out of their shells late Friday, according to Dr. Nova Silvy, upland game management researcher at Texas A&M University and leader of the federal Attwater’s Prairie Chicken Recovery Team.
The 10 chicks will join 12 4-day-old chicks to be raised at the Texas A&M Poultry Center in College Station. They are part of almost 50 eggs collected from eight hens in Refugio and Galveston counties at the end of March.
“There are fewer Attwater’s prairie chickens in the world than there are whooping cranes,” Silvy said. “The loss of the prairie chicken is a symptom of a larger problem: we’re losing the coastal prairies and all that they have to offer. The Attwater’s is said to be the bellwether species of those endangered.”
Attwater’s prairie chickens once numbered in the millions along the Texas coast and throughout Louisiana. This year, the recovery team counted only 79 males, meaning that if each male has a mate, there are now only 158 birds in the world. They are found only in four Texas counties: Refugio, Colorado, Austin and Galveston. That compares to 229 males counted in 1993, Silvy said, a startling 65 percent drop from last year’s population.
“We know that for some reason, we’re losing all the young (eggs laid in the wild),” he said. “Some have blamed heavy rains, but we’ve had heavy rains for years and years.”
Silvy said that after the team counted birds this spring, they captured eight females and attached radio transmitters to them in order to be able to return and find the eggs. Researchers begin trying to raise Attwater’s prairie chickens in captivity a couple of years ago because virtually no chicks were surviving in the wild.
The Texas A&M researchers also have brought two male birds from captivity to the poultry center to attempt captive reproduction.
The first chicks from eggs collected this year hatched earlier this week. The second set, being kept warm in incubators, is scheduled to start hatching late Friday. After hatching, the chicks are kept in the incubator for 24 hours, then moved to pens. They are fed insects for the first month of life and then gradually switched to a grain-type chicken starter feed, Silvy said.
The team also is researching ways to revitalize the coastal prairies to induce greater survivability of this and all native species of plants and animals, he said, because the best scenario is to be able to return the captive birds to the wild and have them thrive.