a (fowl) prairie home companion

Houston Zoo makes fowl play with rescue of critically endangered birds

Houston Zoo makes fowl play with rescue of critically endangered birds

attwater prairie chicken
Attwater’s prairie chickens like this one are roaming Texas thanks to the zoo's work. Photo by Jackelin Reyna

The Houston Zoo has taken to protecting fine feathered friends of late, with the recent rescue of Mae, the critically injured national icon bald eagle who is now residing with her eagle BFF, Sally Ride.

Now, the zoo has announced the successful breeding, raising, and releasing of one of the most endangered birds in North America. Some 68 Attwater’s prairie chickens are now roaming the Lone Star State — specifically the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge in Eagle Lake and on the Goliad Prairie in Victoria, Texas.

That number is significant: A century ago, the zoo notes, nearly 1,000,000 Attwater’s prairie chickens flourished in North America’s wild. Today, that number has dropped to a staggering 180 birds.

One of just four zoos to breed and release these birds in partnership with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Houston Zoo runs a breeding program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, on a plot of land that resembles their natural habitat of the coastal prairie.

Eggs are incubated and the chicks are raised at the zoo until they are large enough to pass a medical evaluation. Once they have been medically cleared, they are released back into the wild to join existing populations, a release notes. This program is now in its 27th year.

“This is a Texas endemic subspecies of the greater prairie chicken, so this is a uniquely Texas bird,” said Chris Holmes, curator of birds and the head of Houston Zoo’s Attwater’s program. “Currently the survival of this species depends on these releases in partnership with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.”

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