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Friday, September 7, 2012

"Everybody likes chicken."

There was an interesting article on the front page of the Houston Chronicle yesterday about the last-ditch efforts to save the Attwater Prairie Chicken from extinction. The football-sized bird has been in serious trouble for years. Though it once numbered in the hundreds of thousands along vast regions of the Texas and Louisiana coasts, by 1919 the bird had completely vanished from Louisiana and in 1937 Texas could count only 8,700 of them. Its population has been on a downward trajectory since then, but the devastating drought which afflicted its primary remaining range over the last couple of years may have rung the final death knell for the bird. This year, the wild population stood at a minuscule 46 birds.

Photo by Cody Duty for the Houston Chronicle

The Attwater Prairie Chicken was designated as an endangered species in 1967, a billing it shares with the Houston toad, as the Chronicle's article points out, as a "local species driven from its home range and to the brink of extinction by urban sprawl." The concerted effort under way to try to rescue the chicken has included an intensive captive breeding program, much of which has been undertaken by zoos like the Houston Zoo. Every year, eggs are hatched and chicks raised in captivity until they are ready to be released into the wild. On Wednesday, 20 of the birds raised at the Houston Zoo were released at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge.

Unfortunately, the problems for the Prairie Chicken do not end when they are released. In fact, you could say they only begin, because as the manager of the wildlife refuge told the Chronicle reporter, "Everybody likes chicken."  They face predation from hawks, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, snakes, raccoons, even fire ants. Truly, everybody, it seems, does like to snack on chicken, and that makes survival extremely iffy for them. In the wild, the luckiest of the birds might live for four years.

In order to have a sustainable population of Prairie Chickens, there needs to be a statewide population of at least 3,000 birds that is stable over a five year period, according to wildlife experts. Obviously, we are a long, long way from achieving that, but dedicated scientists and wildlife conservationists doggedly carry on, hatching the eggs, raising the chicks, releasing them, and hoping for the best.  

If they need encouragement, they might look to the west where a long-term captive-breeding program has managed to bring the California Condor back from the brink of extinction.  Although the huge vultures still face many dangers in the wild, mostly from human activities related to hunting (e.g., lead shot left in animals killed by hunters that the birds then feed on and occasionally being shot by hunters themselves), they do seem on the road to recovery. Let us hope that, within our lifetime, we will be able to say the same for the little Prairie Chicken.    

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