Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge

Location:

Colorado County northeast of Eagle Lake.

Owner/ Manager:

US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Directions:

From the northeast at Interstate 10 exit 720 (Sealy): Go south on Highway 36 (Meyer Street) one mile to Texas Farm to Market Road 3013 and turn right. Go southwest on FM 3013 ten miles to the refuge entrance on the right.

From the northwest at Interstate 10 exit 699 (Columbus): Go southeast on Highway 102 about twelve miles to Eagle Lake. In Eagle Lake Highway 102 bends around the town square and then merges with Highway 90 in the south of town. Follow the combined Highway 102/90 southeast – in half a mile where 102 branches to the right stay on 90. In another half mile turn left (northeast) on FM 3013. Follow FM 3013 six and a half miles to the refuge entrance on the left.

The refuge headquarters are two miles beyond the entrance via a road that can be rough or flooded in places. There is a small coastal prairie garden at the entrance to the headquarters building. Free. No camping. Pets on leash (in the small southeast public use area only).


In the 1990s the Attwater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido attwateri) replaced the California condor as the most endangered bird within the United States. As a result of this dubious distinction Attwater prairie chickens have been intensely studied physically right down to their mitochondria, their every movement in the field carefully monitored, each potential predator or parasite evaluated and the birds’ behavior exhaustively examined. It is indeed difficult to say anything about the Attwater prairie chicken that has not already been said or the place where in the 1990s it came close to making its last stand. I will attempt here to give a brief overview of the bird and its refuge.

To begin with the Attwater prairie chicken should not really be an endangered bird. It once was a common game bird along the Texas and Louisiana gulf coast and the hens produce a relatively large number of eggs compared to other birds. The adult birds can also eat a wide variety of vegetation and insects - even many plant leaves which most other birds can not consume. Rather the Attwater prairie chicken has almost become extirpated because it is non-migratory and its ideal habitat, coastal prairie, has largely disappeared.

The Attwater prairie chicken is a subspecies of prairie chicken not a unique species – it can interbreed with other prairie chickens or even other grouse. It is distinguished from the other subspecies of prairie chickens by size, some superficial markings, diet and preference for a particular type of cover. Prairie chickens in general are about the size of a domestic chicken with dull brown and white feathers. The males have prominent orange air sacs around their throats. The Attwater prairie chicken was first described by the Smithsonian ornithologist Charles E. Bendire in the late 19th century as being slightly smaller and darker than the greater prairie chicken. Bendire named it in honor of the amateur naturalist Henry P Attwater, an Englishman who went from Bristol to the Brazos via Canada, who had sent him specimens of it. The Attwater prairie chicken while regarded as a subspecies of prairie chicken is given full protection under the Endangered Species Act just as if it were its own unique species.

The Attwater is not different from other grouse in what is collectively their most distinctive behavior – the ‘booming’ and dancing of the males in the early spring in open areas called leks. If all this noise-making and dancing around in an open space might seem dangerous from the standpoint of attracting the attention of a fox or a hawk that is probably the point – besides impressing a potential mate it likely distracts predators from foraging for eggs and hatchlings in the surrounding grass. Some birds have elaborate courtship rituals, other birds practice distraction displays to protect their young and birds that flock together sometimes exhibit behavior that can be interpreted as both.

The odds of actually seeing an Attwater prairie chicken at Attwater Prairie chicken NWR most of the year are slim. The refuge is largely off limits to human traffic and the birds much prefer their cover of mid-grasses. The occasional presence of bison also makes it prudent to keep the bulk of the refuge visitor free. Even many zoos involved with the Attwater Prairie chicken captive breeding program do not allow public viewing in the interest of improving the survival rate of their hatchlings. Perhaps the best place to view these birds is at the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. The is a relatively expensive drive-through exotic animal park southwest of the Dallas-Forth Worth area in Glen Rose. Attwater Prairie chicken NWR does have some supervised van tours to the leks in the spring with only slightly improved odds of actually seeing or hearing these elusive birds.

As a small consolation Attwater Prairie chicken NWR is a superb place to see other birds including many of the rarer migratory birds of the prairie such as the upland sandpiper, grasshopper sparrow or Le Conte’s sparrow. These birds, in serious decline but numbering in the few thousands rather than the dozens, are difficult to find in their nesting habitat farther north in the spring and summer. Some of these can be seen from a small section in the southeast corner of the refuge that consists of old fields set aside for public use with two one mile loop trails, the Pipit and Sycamore Loops. The refuge also has an auto tour route that goes by some wetlands which usually have a good collection of waterfowl. (The Eagle Lake area in general is the winter home to millions of ducks and geese). Even with the public use area and auto tour route the bulk of this refuge is not open to the public.

Many accounts of the Attwater prairie chicken overlook the contribution of Thomas T Waddel in saving it. This bird had been recognized as being on the brink of extirpation since the 1930s when Texas outlawed hunting it. Waddel was the Colorado County game warden and an avid hunter and conservationist. Largely through his efforts, which began long before there was an Endangered Species Act, and seed money from the World Wildlife Fund the Attwater Prairie chicken NWR was established in 1972 and has been added to many times since. Waddel was its first manager. He was also an accomplished taxidermist of birds and some of his collection is on display at the refuge headquarters and in a small museum in Eagle Lake.

Finally it should be mentioned that the situation with Attwater Prairie chicken NWR is no longer a case of the last place of the rarest bird. The rarest bird within the United States may now be the ivory-billed woodpecker. Also the status of the Attwater has improved a bit. A second group of wild birds is now protected on a refuge near Texas City in the presence of oil refineries and active drilling and the birds seem to be doing fine. There is also an expanding captive breeding program at a number of zoos and institutions, and some of the birds from this program have been periodically released since 2007 on a private ranch in Goliad County. The long term success of this program is probably dependent on recovering more of the coastal prairie habitat that the birds depend upon rather than anything peculiar to the genetics of the Attwater prairie chicken.