The Attwater’s prairie chicken is smaller and darker than the related greater prairie chicken and is heavily barred above and below with dark brown, cinnamon, and pale buff. Males have inflatable sacs on each side of the neck that make a “booming” sound when inflated that can be heard half a mile away. On the “booming grounds” or “leks,” males gather for communal courtship displays involving 10 to 30 birds, much like other prairie chickens.
A resident of coastal prairie natural communities, Attwater’s prairie chickens range between different grass areas, nesting and feeding in taller grasses and using short grasses for feeding and leks. In the summer, they subsist primarily on insects—especially grasshoppers—and their diet switches to fruit, leaves, flowers, shoots, seeds and grains the rest of the year. Breeding begins in early April. Hens typically lay approximately 12 eggs, which hatch after 23-24 days. The young leave the nest only a few hours after hatching.
Federally endangered in the United States, the Attwater’s prairie chicken suffered a precipitous drop in population during the 20th century. In 1900, there were around 1,000,000 individuals, but by 1999, less than 50 remained in the wild. Once found in Gulf Coast prairies from Texas to southwest Louisiana, the bird is now limited to remnant populations along the Texas coast. Less than one percent of its original range remains in suitable condition. In addition to pressures from loss of habitat, both juvenile and adult birds are at risk from predation by falcons, hawks and other raptors, as well as terrestrial species such as coyotes, raccoons and snakes.
Habitat for this critically imperiled species is protected at the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge and at The Nature Conservancy’s Texas City Prairie Preserve. The Conservancy is also a partner in the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken Recovery Team— comprised of local, state and federal conservation agencies and non-governmental partners—that strives to increase production of healthy captive-bred birds for release into the wild.
The Conservancy’s Refugio-Goliad Prairie Project is a collaborative effort with private partners to restore and enhance suitable habitat on for the Attwater’s prairie chicken on an ecologically significant scale.
Tidbit: The species was named for Henry Philemon Attwater, a late 19th century and early 20th century naturalist. Attwater was born in England but spent his later years in Texas. His private natural history collection formed the basis of what became the Witte Museum in San Antonio.