Endangered Birds In Southeast Texas Reach Recovery Milestones

The Attwater’s prairie chicken and the whooping crane have had a tough time hanging on in southeast Texas. But there’s reason for optimism.

By Michael MarksMay 5, 2021 10:26 am

Going into this year’s Attwater’s prairie chicken census, John Magera was optimistic.

But on the first day of the count in early March, as he stood in the bed of his pickup on a burnt patch of prairie, even he was pleasantly surprised by how many chickens were out there.

“The conditions were perfect the day we did that count,” Magera said. “It was a calm, cool morning. Not only could you hear the birds for a long ways, you could see them for a long ways.”

Magera is the refuge manager for the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Refuge – over 10,000 acres of marsh and coastal prairie northeast of Corpus Christi.

The count that day yielded 178 prairie chickens – a 30-year high. It confirmed that the endangered birds have a long way to go, but they’re making progress nonetheless.

Attwater’s prairie chickens are only found on the refuge Magera manages, and on private land near Goliad. These days most chickens are bred in captivity, and then released at one of these sites.

“In the mid-90s, we nearly lost this bird completely. And the last-ditch effort for a lot of endangered species is to capture individuals, or in this case eggs, and create a captive breeding program,” Magera said.

The population increase is due to the success of those programs, but the numbers might be even higher were it not for recent floods. The tax day flood in 2016 and Hurricane Harvey in 2018 both devastated the prairie chicken population.

“Those two back-to-back 500 year floods, they knocked us not just back to where we were, but actually down to the lowest number in the wild in history,” Magera said.

After Hurricane Harvey there were also questions about how another endangered bird in southeast Texas would bounce back: the Whooping Crane.

Typically, the cranes found in Texas split time between the Gulf Coast and Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. But earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service announced that two pairs of cranes were going to give it a go here full-time – one set in Jefferson County, another in Chambers County.

A nesting whooping crane U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The birds came from a group of year-round residents that live in Louisiana. When they crossed over to nest in Texas, they became the first known whoopers in recent memory to live in the state year-round.

“It’s kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity to see that kind of a conservation stride made by a species,” said Wade Harrell, Whooping crane recovery coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

One pair of cranes has already hatched a set of chicks, but they didn’t survive. That’s not uncommon, Harrell said. But the advantage of living in Texas is that they can try again this year – something that migratory cranes that spend time in cold climates can’t.

“Because we have a longer warm season, they have multiple times where they can come back and re-nest,” Harrell said.

So there’s a lot of positive momentum for both the whooping cranes and the Attwater’s prairie chicken. And in order to keep it going, both Harrell and Magera say that Texans will have to continue to make space for these birds – which means getting private landowners to agree to manage their land so it’s hospitable for cranes and prairie chickens.

That used to be a tough sell. Hosting an endangered species can mean accepting rules about what you can and can’t do with your property. But Magera says that is changing too though.

“A lot of these people that I talk to today can remember having prairie chickens on their property,” Magera said. “They can remember hearing that booming noise in the spring. And as they look back, it’s something they miss.”

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