Attwater's prairie chicken

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Attwater's prairie chicken
Attwater's Prairie Chicken.jpg

Critically Imperiled (NatureServe)[1]
CITES Appendix II (CITES)[2]
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Galliformes
Family: Phasianidae
Genus: Tympanuchus
T. c. attwateri
Trinomial name
Tympanuchus cupido attwateri

Attwater's prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido attwateri) is a highly endangered subspecies of the greater prairie chicken that is native to coastal Texas and formerly Louisiana in the United States.[4]


Attwater's prairie chicken measures 17–18 in (43-45.5 cm) and weighs roughly 1.5 to 2.0 lb (0.7 to 0.9 kg). It has a 28-in (70-cm) wingspan. These grouse have strong vertical bars of dark brown and buff-white pattern over the mantle, flanks, and underparts. The species exhibits sexual dimorphism, with the males having elongated feathers, called pinnae, erected to form what looks like ear-like structures. The male also has as a bright orange or golden air sac on either side of his neck, which he inflates during mating displays.[5] They have a lifespan of 2-5 years.

Habitat and range[edit]

T. c. attwateri is endemic to the Western Gulf coastal grasslands. Its range historically stretched west from Bayou Teche in Louisiana to the Nueces River in Texas,[6] possibly as far south as Tamaulipas, Mexico,[7] and inland for 75 mi (121 km). This covered an area of 6 million acres (24,000 km²).[6] Today, populations exist in the wild at two locations: the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge near Eagle Lake, Texas, and on private lands in Goliad County.[8]


The mating display can be seen January through mid-May, peaking in mid-March, when the birds gather in small groups on short grass, bare ground, or hilly areas to choose a mate. This area is called a lek or "booming ground." In these areas, the females watch the males and choose their mate. The male emits a booming, "woo-woo" sound from his neck sack, causing it to inflate, and struts around to attract a female. Some of the traditional dances of the North American Plains Indians are based on this booming display.

In late spring, the hens lay 10 to 14 eggs in nests on the ground, hidden in tall grass. The eggs hatch about 26 days later. Only about 3 in 10 eggs hatch and the others are lost to predators. The chicks stay with the hen for about six weeks.

Diet and predation[edit]

This species has a diverse diet, eating grass shoots, petals of flowers, seeds, and insects such as grasshoppers. Their predators include hawks, owls, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, opossums, and snakes. Chicks are susceptible to flooding.


In 1900, up to 1,000,000 Attwater's prairie chickens inhabited the coastal grasslands.[6] Loss of habitat is believed to be the prime reason for their decline. One of the major factors contributing to the habitat loss was the widespread planting, beginning in the early 1900s, of Chinese tallow trees (Triadica sebifera) to establish a soapmaking industry.[9] Since that time, T. sebifera has proven to be an aggressive invader of the coastal grasslands, where it displaces the diverse native plant assemblage that was dominated by prairie grasses and forbs with dense, near-monospecific stands that significantly alter biotic and abiotic ecosystem processes.[10] Urbanization further contributes to habitat loss. As a result of these changes over the last 100 years, the entire grassland ecosystem where Attwater's prairie chicken once thrived exists in small, scattered patches whose continued existence is threatened. Where once grazing plains bison and periodic wildfires due to lightning reduced brush, the birds now have difficulty making their way through thick undergrowth. Other, less-apparent changes in the ecosystem possibly have had an effect, as well.

A 1937 study recorded about 8,700 Attwater's prairie chickens remaining in four Texas counties. Attwater's prairie chicken has been on the endangered species list since March 1967 when an estimated 1,070 birds were left in the wild.[11] By 2003, fewer than 50 birds remained in the wild.

In 1999, Nature Conservancy decided to permit new drilling close to primary breeding grounds on Texas land owned by the Conservancy.[12][13] This has harmed the grouse and their habitat, according to the Wildlife Society.[14] Drilling in sensitive areas is destructive and opposed by environmentalists.[15] The number of Attwater's prairie chickens nesting on the land owned by the Conservancy fell from 36 in 1998 to 16 in 2003.[15] Analysis by Nature Conservancy's Texas science director said that that new oil drilling project subjected the grouse to a "higher probability of death."[15] In 2007, Nature Conservancy issued new permits to drill a new oil well on protected land. Attwater's prairie chickens have since disappeared from the site.[12]


In 2014, an estimated 260 birds remained, with about 100 living in the wild. Captive-breeding programs are underway at places such as Fossil Rim Wildlife Center,[16] Abilene Zoo, and Caldwell Zoo (Tyler, TX). Through a partnership with the Houston Zoo,[17] a captive-breeding flock is residing on the grounds of the NASA Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center near Clear Lake.

In 2016, the population declined to 42 birds following heavy spring floods, which wiped out an entire generation of eggs. Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was even more disastrous, likely killing at least 32 birds, with only five females found during the post-hurricane survey of the area.[18] However, in the spring of 2018, the estimated wild population was 12.[19] As of February 2019, with the Houston Zoo having released many individuals the previous year, the wild population was around 200.[20] Since then, the wild population has decreased again. A count done later that year indicated only 108 birds remaining[21] and a report from February 2021 stated fewer than 100.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "NatureServe Explorer 2.0".
  2. ^ "Appendices | CITES". Retrieved 2022-01-14.
  3. ^ "Tympanuchus cupido attwateri". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 2010-11-24.
  4. ^ "Attwater's Prairie Chicken". Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Retrieved 2010-11-25.
  5. ^ Chamberlain, Kendra (2019-09-24). "ESA rules could spell trouble for the lesser prairie chicken". The NM Political Report. Retrieved 2020-06-15.
  6. ^ a b c "Attwater's Prairie Chicken History of Species Decline Historic Populations". Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Retrieved 2010-11-25.
  7. ^ Silvy, Nova J.; Brown, Dennis L.; Labuda, Jr., Stephen E.; Teer, James G.; Williams, Dennis (1996). Attwater's Prairie Chicken Recovery Plan (PDF) (Report). United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
  8. ^ "Attwater's Prairie Chicken History of Species Decline Current Range". Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Retrieved 2010-11-25.
  9. ^ Flack, S. & E. Furlow. 1996. "America's least wanted "purple plague", "green cancer" and 10 other ruthless environmental thugs". Nature Conservancy Magazine. Vol. 46, No. 6 November/December.
  10. ^ Bruce, K. A., G. N. Cameron, & P. A. Harcombe. 1995. "Initiation of a new woodland type on the Texas coastal prairie by the Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum (L.) Roxb.)". Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 122:215-225.
  11. ^ "Attwater's Prairie-Chicken". Society of TympanuchusCupido Pinnatus, Ltd. Retrieved 29 October 2016.
  12. ^ a b Abrams, Lindsay (2014-08-04). "The country's largest environmental group is profiting from oil drilling". Salon. Retrieved 2020-06-15.
  13. ^ "Big Green Blues". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2020-06-15.
  14. ^ Wilson, Janet (2002-08-20). "Wildlife Shares Nest With Profit". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2020-06-15.
  15. ^ a b c Stephens, Joe; Ottaway, David B. (2003-05-05). "How a Bid to Save a Species Came to Grief". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2020-06-15.
  16. ^ "Animal Conservation". Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. Archived from the original on 2011-07-19. Retrieved 2010-11-24.
  17. ^ "Attwater's Prairie Chicken Recovery Program". Houston Zoo. Archived from the original on 22 June 2009. Retrieved 2009-08-06.
  18. ^ "How Hurricane Harvey Affected Birds and Their Habitats in Texas". Audubon. 2017-09-25. Retrieved 2017-09-29.
  19. ^ "Attwater's prairie chickens dealt critical blow by Hurricane Harvey". Archived from the original on 2018-06-15. Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  20. ^ Gordon, Maggie (February 13, 2019). "' for chickens': Houston Zoo's secret weapon for saving a species". Houston Chronicle.
  21. ^ "26th annual Attwater Prairie Chicken Fest Mar. 28-29". Colorado County Citizen. March 11, 2020.
  22. ^ "As Extreme Weather Events Increase, What Are the Risks to Wildlife?". EcoWatch. February 22, 2021.

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