Endangered Texas prairie chickens ready to take the stage at Fossil Rim

GLEN ROSE -- A handful of once common, but now seldom-seen, Texas birds will soon start living in public view at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center.

The nonprofit conservation facility is best known as the place where animal lovers can view 50 exotic species like giraffe and zebras from the comfort of their cars along nine miles of open grasslands and wooded hills. But its biggest success may be its 18-year effort to help save Attwater's prairie chickens, a 12-inch-tall Texas native on the brink of being gone.

"They aren't as sexy as cheetahs but they still need help. We had to do something. This is a bird on the verge of extinction right here in our backyard," said Kelley Snodgrass, director of animal care and natural resource management at the 1,700-acre natural zoo.

Fossil Rim's program has been "the backbone" of the effort to save the species, said Terry Rossignol, recovery team leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Without Fossil Rim, we would not be where we are right now, we might not even have any Attwater's to speak of," he said. "They are still on the brink of extinction with 100 birds in the wild. If we had waited a few more years, it's very possible we would not have any."

The center keeps its 24 breeding pairs of Attwater's sequestered and, except for some behind-the-scenes tours, most of the 250,000 annual visitors don't get to see them, Snodgrass said.

But that will change soon after the Fossil Rim Children's Animal Center reopens Saturday after an eight-month makeover, said the children's center supervisor, Kati Shedd.

With help from a $177,000 grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and hundreds of hours of volunteer labor, the center will feature new fencing, landscaping and seven free-flight aviaries, including one for five or six Attwater's, Shedd said.

Work on the open-air aviaries is not done, and Shedd said the rare birds likely won't be in their new roost until January.

The children's center, on a bluff overlooking the wildlife park, is free and open to the public all year long. About 20,000 children a year visit on field trips for close encounters with kid-friendly critters like goats, exotic birds, pot-bellied pigs, tortoises and an emu, Shedd said.

"Having the Attwater's here is really going to expand our educational opportunities about endangered species," she said.

A little over a century ago, more than a million Attwater's could be found along a 75-mile-wide band of coastal prairie stretching from Corpus Christi to the Bayou Teche area in Louisiana, said Rossignol, who manages the 10,528-acre Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge 60 miles west of Houston.

Loss of habitat through farming and urbanization devastated the species, and by 1919 it had disappeared in Louisiana. Texas ended hunting for the birds in 1937 and the species was listed on the federal endangered list in 1967.

By 1994, only 160 Attwater's were left in the wild, and in 2003, after a series of droughts and floods, just 60 remained, Rossignol said.

Fossil Rim hastily initiated a captive breeding program for Attwater's in 1992.

"The wild population was crashing so fast we had to get it rolling. We had an incredibly steep learning process at the beginning. We're a bunch of hoof-stock guys," Snodgrass said. "When we started, it was a stretch for our expertise."

But they caught up.

The center has produced 5,380 Attwater's eggs; 990 birds have been released at the national refuge, on private property near Goliad and at the Nature Conservancy's Texas City Prairie Preserve.

Over the years, zoos in Abilene, Caldwell, Tyler, Houston and San Antonio have also started captive breeding programs, Rossignol said.

The recovery effort notched a new high this year with 58 wild-hatched chicks radio-collared at the refuge, he said.

"In years past we were doing good to get five to 10 chicks to survive," Rossignol said.

Complicating the comeback is that Attwater's are easy pickings for predators.

"They are at the bottom of the food chain, and unfortunately, everything likes chicken: skunks, snakes, hawks, owls, coyotes and bobcats," Rossignol said. "That was the main reason for them being there. That's why they are considered a barometer species."

A particular problem is fire ants, which kill chicks and compete for the insects the young birds depend on, he said.

The Attwater's are best known for their elaborate male courtship dance.

"They emit kind of a weird, eerie sound like someone blowing in a Coke bottle, called booming. At the same time they inflate orange-colored sacs on their necks. They pat their feet on the ground and turn in circles. It's quite a sight," Rossignol said.

The spectacle draws birdwatchers from around the world, he said.

"The aviaries at Fossil Rim are going to be a special place for people to see these little guys," Rossignol said.

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981