Texas Prairie Chicken With Bright-Orange Air Sacs Once on Verge of Extinction Rebounds: Survey

By Michael Wing
Michael Wing
Michael Wing
Editor and Writer
Michael Wing is a writer and editor based in Calgary, Canada, where he was born and educated in the arts. He writes mainly on culture, human interest, and trending news.
August 17, 2021 Updated: August 17, 2021

Sporting bright-orange inflatable air sacs, the Attwater’s prairie-chicken has long been a feature of the Texas and Louisiana landscapes. Their numbers were once so plentiful that cowboys relied upon them for fresh meat while herding cattle far from the ranch.

With the introduction of agriculture, woody species invasion, and human settlement, though, habitat loss caused this notable member of the grouse family to decline in the early 1900s, and eventually verge on extinction in Texas. Louisiana saw the species’s total demise.

This year, thanks to decades of concerted conservation efforts, Attwater’s prairie-chickens are rebounding. A recent survey from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy in Texas heralded the good news.

Epoch Times Photo
A male Attwater’s prairie-chicken early in the morning at Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge near Eagle Lake, TX. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Epoch Times Photo
A female Attwater’s prairie-chicken. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Protections for the species began as early as 1937 with the closure of hunting season and other efforts, to allow their numbers to recover. In 1967, the species was among the very first placed on the U.S. endangered species list—becoming part of the “class of ’67.”

But this once-abundant bird failed to recover the way conservationists hoped. The reason for this, they learned, owed to an invasive insect called the red fire ant, introduced from South America—which first appeared in the bird’s habitat in the 1970s. These fire ants reduced native insects that newly-hatched Attwater’s prairie-chicken chicks relied upon to survive.

Epoch Times Photo
A clutch of Attwater’s prairie-chicken eggs in the wild. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Epoch Times Photo
An Attwater’s prairie-chicken chick. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A breakthrough was made when conservationists began to control these ants—whose aggressive traits always led them to the poison bait first—in areas where the prairie-chickens were being conserved. Their numbers soon showed promise of recovery. Active breeding programs introduced in the 1990s, on Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, and on private lands, played a key role.

Recovery efforts were frustrated, though, by catastrophic weather events, such as the historic drought of 2011, and the rains of Hurricane Harvey in 2017—which sent Attwater’s prairie-chicken populations to the brink of extinction.

In the spring of 2018, just 13 males were counted.

Epoch Times Photo
A male Attwater’s prairie chicken. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Since then, however, the prairie-chicken has made a remarkable comeback, far exceeding pre-Harvey levels and growing to their greatest numbers since 1993—thanks both to concerted conservation efforts and the resiliency of the Attwater’s prairie-chicken, itself.

A recent population survey of the species conducted in April counted 89 of the birds and estimated their current number to be 178.

This promising news affirms that conservationists’ captive breeding programs are on the right track; and that, given half a chance, the brightly adorned Texas native might thrive again someday.

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

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Michael Wing
Michael Wing
Editor and Writer
Michael Wing is a writer and editor based in Calgary, Canada, where he was born and educated in the arts. He writes mainly on culture, human interest, and trending news.