Longtime readers of our Words On Wildlife blog are probably pretty familiar with the pickup days when U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staff visits our Attwater’s prairie chicken facility each summer, but what about the other 360 days of the year?
Senior Animal Care Specialist – Avian Cara Burch and Avian Curator Janet Johnson stay busy no matter what month it is, and it continues to pay off. Fossil Rim is the top production center for this highly endangered grouse, a native of the Texas Coastal Prairie. Houston Zoo and Caldwell Zoo in Tyler also work hard for the bird commonly referred to as an APC.
“You feel a certain amount of pressure when you are working for a captive breeding program centered on such an endangered animal,” Burch said. “I don’t think you ever forget how important what you are doing is. We strive to do our best for these birds. Houston Zoo has had some big production years of their own, which is awesome, because nothing matters more than the combined total of APCs from Fossil Rim, Houston Zoo and Caldwell Zoo.
“There is always a part of you that wants to ensure Fossil Rim is the top producer, but we never lose sight of that end goal, so we root for Houston and Caldwell, as well. I know they do the same for us. All three institutions have meetings together, in person or on the phone, to talk about what’s going on with our programs and to share ideas.”
What are some of the greatest years in the history of Fossil Rim’s APC program?
“Looking at the numbers, 2018 was definitely our all-time high for surviving chicks at 290,” Burch said. “Of those, 246 were sent to the (Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife) Refuge, along with 17 adults. Sticking with surviving chicks, 2015 (238) and 2016 (234) were also among our best years ever, but the second-best year was back in 2008 with 257.
“In terms of total eggs laid, 2003 was the all-time high at 552, while 2018 was second all-time at 544. So, 2018 was a great year for our production, which was exactly what we needed after the hurricane (2017) and the 2016 flooding at the refuge.”
Over the years, Fossil Rim has become more efficient in its APC production.
“When we talk about production, our big three (aspects), if you will, are total number of eggs, total number of chicks to hatch, and total number of chicks to survive the hatchling stage,” Burch said. “When you compare 2018 to 2003, the survivability rate was much higher last year. A key part of that is the change in their diet.”
Fossil Rim Director of Animal Health Dr. Holly Haefele addressed this specifically in a Feb. 2018 blog:
“In 2004-05, we participated in a dietary study based at the Fort Worth Zoo, which led to several changes,” Haefele said. “A key change was in the proportion of pellets to salad mix and insects provided. The birds love to eat salad and insects, but they have limited nutritional value. By limiting the salad and bugs, we forced them to eat more pellets. Chick weight doubled, likely giving them a better chance of survival after release into the wild.”
The numbers tell the tale.
“Survivability percentage was in the 50s and 60s, and then, after the diet tweak, it went up into the 70s and 80s,” Burch said.
Boosting The Program
There is another factor that seems to have aided survivability, and it’s one of the three buildings at the APC facility.
“The ‘Chick Building’ is the building most guests who take a Behind-the-Scenes Tour are most familiar with,” Burch said. “The ‘Old Breezeway’ is where all activities were done when this program started, and nowadays it is basically our feed room and storage area. We still process eggs there when they are removed from the nest before they get moved to the incubation center.”
That is the key building for the survivability conversation – The Ted & Mary Eidson Prairie Grouse Incubation Center.
“We got the incubation center in 2009, and our hatchability rate went up in 2009,” Burch said. “Having a building built for incubation specifically, with a generator in case of power outage – we really appreciate the generosity of the Eidsons. Incubation is the most vulnerable stage for these birds; that’s why J.J. (Johnson) spends so much time in there carefully monitoring all the incubators. It’s a very delicate aspect of this process, and every egg gets candled once a week to check its growth rate.
“Meanwhile, the interns are helping me in the rest of the facility. When Molly (Shea) joins us from hoofstock (staff) during chick season, she takes care of the adult birds and helps with chicks when possible.”
Burch also noted 2008 as an important year because the program was able to start utilizing an online Attwater’s prairie chicken database, courtesy of Fossil Rim’s IT staff.
“The incubation center and database were two more big developments in the history of this program,” Burch said.
One more note on 2008 – it is the year Burch joined Johnson at the APC facility and the duo is going stronger than ever.
“I think what makes it easy to work as a team is that we both have the same overall goal – to produce as many healthy chicks as possible to be released back into the wild every year,” Burch said. “So, we’re on the same page, plus we like each other. When you consider that, for much of the year, we are the only two people out here (at the APC facility), it is important that we get along. When you share trust and the same commitment level with a coworker, it’s a solid foundation for success.”
When other staff members make an appearance in APC land, it is liable to be the animal health department.
“Animal care (staff) has their meetings every morning with the vet staff, so if there is anything the vets need to know about regarding APCs, we bring it up at that point,” Burch said. “If I was concerned about a bird while in the IMA (Intensive Management Area), I might call a vet to come check on it. Now, during chick season, the vet staff is out here 2-3 times per day. Otherwise, they join us for biannual flock-wide health assessments in January and then at the end of the breeding season in June.
“During that process, we catch every single bird that we have. The vets give each one a physical, draw blood, and apply dewormer.”
Burch said reasons to call the vet staff randomly might be a bird limping or, more often, a grass impaction.
“A grass impaction usually occurs in the summertime when coastal (Bermuda) grass is growing,” Burch said. “It’s actually an enemy of the prairie chicken, because if they eat a long strand, it can twist up in their gut and get stuck. We suspect that is the issue if they stop eating and lose weight, but you know for sure if there are no solids in their fecal matter.
“We’ve battled with Bermudagrass the past several years, trying to eradicate it from our flights. Using Roundup on it in recent years really helps to kill it off, and then we reseed that area with grasses that are more prairie chicken-friendly.”
APC interns are also regulars at the facility during several months of the year. In fact, Burch recently finished collecting intern applications to decide which three individuals will join the chick season action for 2019.
“You want somebody who seems really motivated to learn about this field of work; it’s ideal if they see their future in animal care – especially birds,” she said. “Of course, part of an internship is figuring out what you want to do with your life. The essentials are being dependable, good time management skills and the ability to work in a fast-paced environment within a group, plus being self-motivated.”
Burch knows exactly what these interns will need to bring to the table, but not just because she works alongside them annually. Burch was an APC intern in 2006.
“The Prairie Grouse Conservation Internship here was my first internship out of college,” she said. “It was easy to fall in love with Fossil Rim – the animals, the landscape, the mission, the people. I knew after spending a summer here that if an opportunity ever came open, it would be a dream job. Luckily for me, two years down the road it did, and here I am.
“I’ve always liked birds and I had pet birds growing up, but I always saw myself going into more of a hoofstock field, or maybe even working with domestic horses and cattle. That was my thought after graduating from college, but once I saw these birds and worked with them, I recognized it was a worthy cause and it changed my outlook. Internships are definitely a good way to figure out your professional goals, and doing several is a good idea.”
Charting The APC Timeline
What is happening at the APC facility during different months of the year?
“The last shipment of APCs went to the refuge in August,” Burch said. “From September until the exams in January, we are basically playing catchup. During chick season, we don’t have time to do any kind of maintenance with the adult flights.
“There are three APC flights, which means 36 pens requiring mowing, weed-eating, and raking repeatedly. Before and after breeding season, nearly all of the flights stay open and the birds live together among two pens.”
Two former APC flights were converted for cranes. Fossil Rim is home to Japanese red-crowned cranes and wattled cranes, while sandhill cranes seen on property are able to go and come as they please.
The booming ritual, aka the mating dance for male APCs, begins in February and the first egg is laid in late March.
“All of the results came back good on the January exams, so now we are preparing all the pens for the breeding pairs to move in,” Burch said. “We’re cutting (Ashe) juniper branches, patching mouse holes, and anything else that’s needed. J.J. is working to get the incubation building ready. The incubators have to be disinfected; the whole building has to be cleaned, top to bottom.
“The Chick Building also has to be cleaned, but I’m fortunate to have the help of our interns for most of that. We place a high priority on disease prevention, especially in the incubation building, because you can’t risk infection for the chicks at their most vulnerable stage.”
It seems only appropriate the breeding pairs are made during the month that is home to Valentine’s Day.
“As the booming begins, the decisions about which birds are paired up are underway,” she said. “That needs to be complete when March arrives. In my mind, once the breeding pairs are decided and together, that’s when the new year begins at the APC facility. Over the next month, other than feeding the adults, J.J. and I will try to help out the rest of the staff throughout the park during Spring Break, and then right after that we get our first eggs.”
This year, there are 20 breeding pairs, as well as two trios. In a trio, two hens stay in adjacent pens and the rooster alternates between the two pens.
“So, hopefully we have 24 hens producing fertile eggs,” Burch said. “That’s usually the number we start with.”
APCs are usually shy creatures, but they can show a different side in February and March.
“Occasionally, you’ll see a hen with more of an attitude than usual,” Burch said. “Normally, they are very skittish, but we do have one now that is braver and will cackle at you sometimes. During breeding season, the males get aggressive and territorial, but otherwise they are skittish like the hens.”
Insightful Info For Guests
Guests usually enter Fossil Rim at the Front Gate, while the IMA is at the opposite end of Fossil Rim. The APC facility is at the very back of the IMA. Why the isolation?
“When other Fossil Rim staff visits the (APC) flights (to see adult birds), we ask them to dress in neutral colors, because the birds are sensitive,” Burch said. “That’s a great example of why we are in the IMA. We don’t want any undue stress on the APCs – getting scared and hitting their heads on the roof of their flight.
“The less distractions, the better the breeding process and production in general will go. These adult birds usually only see one person each day, and a group of people pretty much only during those two health exams each year.”
From the visitor perspective, there are a few important APC months to keep in mind.
“A Behind-the-Scenes Tour, which is the main way to visit the APC facility, would be a good consideration during breeding season,” Burch said. “On a Behind-the-Scenes Tour, you can hear the males booming, especially by late February. As far as ‘primetime’ for seeing activity in the Chick Building, I’d suggest May and June visits.”
Fossil Rim’s premier tour option is an Adventure Tour, a six-hour excursion that must be scheduled weeks in advance. It can be focused on certain species, and is likely the only way to gain further access to the APC facility than a Behind-the-Scenes Tour.
“I’ve given an Adventure Tour focused on APCs,” Burch said. “It was for one person, and I’d imagine to do it again, we’re talking about one or two people at a time. We could take people over to the bird flights to see the adults, but they’d need to be wearing soft, neutral colors. I don’t think this will be an option when we are especially busy.
“February would actually be a good month to try something like that in regard to adult birds. Seeing one of the males booming up close is really awesome, I think.
“I would also mention July, when we will still have some chicks at the facility, but we aren’t slammed like May and June. J.J. will have final say on Adventure Tours, but if you want to see if one will be approved in the future, those are the months I’d recommend you target.”
An Adventure Tour at the APC facility is also the only potential way to see the Japanese red-crowned cranes and wattled cranes in person.
We Would Prefer “APG”
“APC” is the go-to name for these birds at Fossil Rim. Not only is it succinct, but also know that “chicken” is not a beloved term around here and is not even accurate.
“J.J. would be the first to tell you we aren’t fans of the name, especially considering it’s a grouse, not a chicken,” Burch said. “When you want people to support conservation, you don’t want the image of a domestic chicken entering their mind.”
How are APCs doing in the wild?
“Dr. Mike Morrow with U.S. Fish & Wildlife communicates with J.J. and me about how the birds are doing at the refuge, as well as the private land in Goliad County where some of them live,” Burch said. “There weren’t any major flooding events in 2018, which was a welcome change. Personally, I was just hoping for a ‘normal’ weather year to give the APCs a chance. It’s what the wild population needed, for sure.”
It is great to know things are looking up for an animal that has endured so much hardship due to weather and predators over the years, but even when times are tough, the approach at Fossil Rim’s APC facility doesn’t change.
“We are working to save a species from extinction and help it regain a foothold in the wild,” Burch said. “You have to have a ‘never-give-up’ attitude. Hurricane Harvey was upsetting – knowing it claimed a lot of the birds we raised here that were living at the refuge.
“It makes you sad and frustrated, but you can’t lose your motivation. The captive breeding program means everything for APCs.”
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate