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Space Chickens!

posted Apr 18, 2016, 4:28 AM by
Each year, around this time in spring, a rare sound can be heard on the grounds of the Johnson Space Center.  It's the sound of Space Chickens! Well, not really, but it is the sound of the endangered Attwater Prairie Chicken booming and dancing as they court their ladyloves. The Attwater Prairie Chicken is one of the most endangered birds in the U.S., and is now only found in Texas.  It is estimated that there are only about 125 left in the wild.  The Houston Zoo and NASA are working together to help bring back the endangered Attwater Prairie Chicken, also known as the "APC".   NASA has provided an 'embassy' on the grounds of the Johnson Space Center to provide a quiet preserve habitat for the Houston Zoo to run a captive breeding project to help raise and breed the rare chickens.   As part of the 2016 Prairie Power Series, visitors had a chance to tour the facility and the NASA prairie and observe these rare behaviors.   

Two groups of 25 Texas Master Naturalists and avid birders were treated to the tour, which began at Rocket Park with a van ride across the JSC campus to the prairie and APC habitat. The JSC campus covers about 1600 acres, 400 of which are prairie with about one acre set aside as APC habitat.  We were greeted by the NASA wildlife biologist and zookeepers from the Houston Zoo, and split into two groups - one that heard about the prairie project and one that went for their first look at the chickens - our group headed to prairie first.  NASA and the JSC are in the process of trying to restore 400 acres of the property to natural prairie.  As is the case with so much of our area, the land was overgrazed in the past, and is taking time to recover, but is making progress.    So, on to the Prairie Chickens!  The APC habitat is right on the edge of the JSC prairie, which is key.  The APC's dramatic decline is mostly due to the disappearance of their native prairie habitat.  Zookeepers from the Houston Zoo are onsite daily to care for the chickens.  The pens are carpeted with natural prairie grasses and some even have the 'recycled' Christmas trees for extra cover and nesting area.  The female chickens hang out and watch while the males perform the famous 'booming dance'.  The males stamp their feet and make a booming sound from their necklaces and then they strut around and start again.  It's unique among birds and amazing to watch.  Some of the traditional dances of the North American Plains Indians are thought to be based on this bird's energetic dance!   The females at the NASA breeding facility generally have clutched once during season in the past and the zookeepers are hoping to encourage multiple clutches by removing the eggs from the clutches and replacing them with dummy eggs in hopes the females will clutch a second time.  The eggs are incubated and chicks raised to adulthood at the Houston Zoo before being returned to their wild habitat.  

It was an amazing opportunity to see how the combined, collaborative efforts of the Houston Zoo, NASA, the Prairie organizations and the public are working to bring back one of Texas' most iconic birds.