COLLEGE STATION — Approaching the brink of extinction, the Attwater’s prairie chicken is celebrating life with the hatching of 22 chicks at Texas A&M University.
The chicks are among the first to be successfully hatched in captivity, according to Dr. Nova Silvy, upland game management researcher at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, a unit of Texas A&M.
The chicks are part of almost 50 eggs collected from eight hens in Refugio and Galveston counties at the end of March. Half of the eggs were given to the Houston Zoo. Researchers plan to raise the birds for re-release in the wild.
“There are fewer Attwater’s prairie chickens in the world than there are whooping cranes,” said Silvy, leader of the federal Attwater’s Prairie Chicken Recovery Team. “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 wild 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.
David Drake, a graduate student working with Silvy, said that hens will lay up to three clutches a year if something happens to their original nest of eggs. Thus, the team targeted the early season eggs so that the hens would have time to produce additional young.
Researchers begin trying to raise Attwater’s prairie chickens in captivity a couple of years ago because virtually no chicks are surviving in the wild. The Experiment Station researchers also brought two male birds from the wild to the pens in College Station to attempt captive reproduction.
After hatching, the chicks were 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.