When is a Grouse a Chicken?

Last weekend I took a quick road trip. Up early Saturday morning to travel to Eagle Lake, Texas to pay a visit to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, home to approximately 35 chickens by their last bird count. Another 10 or so are hanging out at a neighboring rancher’s place. This refuge is about 10,000 acres of just what you would expect….prairie which is the type of terrain most liked as a homestead by these Prairie Chickens, members of the North American Grouse family.

Male Attwater Prairie Chicken

These plain, homely birds have been residents on the Endangered Species List since 1967. Intense captive breeding programs have tried to increase their numbers over the years, but without much success. When a bird is at the bottom of the food chain, survival is an onerous task. A hundred years ago, their numbers were in the millions, but the destruction of their preferred habitat in Texas and Louisiana, as well as being a good food source for people and other numerous forms of wildlife, has left them clinging to existence by the merest of threads.

I wanted to take this opportunity to see these special birds because they may ultimately disappear from our planet much the same way the passenger pigeon became extinct. The draw at this time of the year is to get lucky and see some of the breeding males as they perform their mating ritual dance for the females. In the Spring, the males enhance their appearance by changing some of their everyday plumage for their “courting” attire in the hopes of being the most handsome in the group. They usually do this on a slice of prairie land called a “lek”. Each morning the males parade up and down the lek puffing out their bright yellow cheeks and as their cheeks deflate, a booming sound emerges as the male furiously stamps his feet up and down. It is a sight worthy of being seen. And I was fortunate enough to see a couple of the 35 birds that call these 10,000 acres home.

I left The Attwater Refuge and continued my journey to The Armand Bayou Nature Center located in the NASA area. This beautiful expanse of  2500 acres of marsh land, riparian forest and prairie land is located right in the middle of a very urban area. Boardwalks and nature trails wind through the terrain and reptiles, mammals and birds enjoy a peaceful existence in a well maintained, protected environment.

Armand Bayou Marsh
Yellow-banded Water Snake

Leaving Armand Bayou, I took a short afternoon ride to check out some of my favorite birding spots in Galveston, I was rewarded with a few of my favorite birds but also with a sighting of a Clapper Rail strolling through a marshy area and stopping long enough to take a bath.

Clapper Rail – Galveston
Bath time
Red-bellied Whistling Duck
Snowy Egret

The next morning our group met at NASA for our special tour and up close and personal view of the Attwater Prairie Chickens that are part of a breeding program sponsored by NASA in cooperation with the Houston Zoo. The goal is to support the birds in their breeding efforts, monitor and support their young to an age where they can safely be reintroduced back into the wild. Breeding pairs are kept in screened pens and the eggs are meticulously examined, protected and monitored. It was exciting to see them up close, hear their constant booming sounds, and watch them do their mating ritual. 

A bonus of my Chicken Little weekend was walking through a large building at NASA that houses the Saturn 5 Rocket. The enormous size of the entire thing blew me away and it was mind-boggling to think of the courage it must take to climb into a capsule on top of thousands of gallons of rocket fuel and anticipate your propulsion into space.

It was an extremely quick trip, just an overnight stay, but packed with lots of adventure and some pretty impressive birds, both the feathered kind and the man-made variety. America is a beautiful and fascinating place both at home and throughout our many different states. America was, is and always has been GREAT!!!! We don’t have to make it great again, just preserve and enhance what we already are privileged to enjoy. Happy bird searching!!!