Attwater’s prairie chickens (APCs) are the top priority of the avian staff at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, and the importance of these endangered, native Texas birds is not lost on the facility’s prairie grouse conservation interns.
Along with Mitchell Schooler and Kristi Broerman, Keri Lu Halverson served as an intern in the avian department for 2018.
“I’ve been here since April,” Halverson said in mid-July before returning to her native North Carolina. “I’m excited to go home and see my family, but it’s really bittersweet leaving here. This first shipment (of APCs to the national refuge) was the only one I’ll be here for.”
Halverson shared a moment from the shipment day that made her emotional.
“When I picked up one of the birds to put in a (transport crate), I looked down and saw his paperwork,” she said. “If a very young male gets really excited, he will start booming (courtship display). If you see it, you are supposed to mark it down, and I saw him foot stomping the day after he hatched. I think it’s so interesting they are born with this instinct to impress the females, and it’s definitely a sight to see.
“It was May 8 when I observed him, and having this bird in my hands when I realized which one he was – I just started crying. I’ve been with this bird since the beginning when he was hatched and couldn’t move. Now, he’s getting sent off to (the refuge).”
Halverson graduated from Lees-McRae College in North Carolina in Dec. 2017 with a degree in wildlife biology and a concentration in wildlife rehabilitation.
“I saw this internship on the AZA job board,” she said. “I’d learned of it previously, but I was still in school at the time. I was very fortunate to get an interview three days after I applied, and then (Senior Animal Care Specialist – Avian) Cara (Burch) called me to let me know I’d been selected. I’m very grateful that she made that call.”
Fossil Rim offers a half-dozen internships, but this is specifically the one she was aiming for.
“I’ve always been a bird person,” she said. “I grew up helping raise chickens and I focused on birds at the wildlife rehab center I worked at while in school. The only thing I knew about APCs beforehand is that they are highly endangered, but I’m really glad I came here and was able to learn. They are more vibrant and colorful in person with their air sacs and eyebrows; they are a beautiful bird.”
Halverson shared some insight on the busy day-to-day for prairie grouse conservation interns.
“There were a lot of early mornings,” she said. “Some nights we wouldn’t get home until 6:30, and then we were back again at 7 a.m. Sometimes we worked through lunch because we had so many babies to feed and so many things to get done. They each need to be fed four times per day.
“When you have 30-plus birds in one room, you have to feed them all in a timely manner. Whenever you have free time, there is always something that needs to be cleaned. The three of us each know there are certain areas in which things need to be done, so one of us will take cleaning, one will take diet making, and one will help Cara with other duties.
“We often decided who would do what during the morning ride to the (Intensive Management Area). I thrive in fast-paced environments, and it was a very fun experience.”
Halverson talked about feeding APC chicks, which have an interesting diet in captivity.
“In the beginning of the season, we would go help Cara feed the adults, but once chick season started (Animal Care Specialist) Molly (Shea) came over (from the hoofstock department) to help us,” she said. “Then, she would feed the adults while we were feeding in the chick building. The salad we prepare for the chicks includes romaine lettuce, kale, collard greens, apples, carrots, peas and green beans; it is blended up in a food processor like baby food.
“Every chick gets a certain amount of salad. They also get an APC pelleted diet we grind up. They love the salad, but don’t care much for the pellets, so you have to make sure the two are mixed well. Plus, every chick gets one mealworm.”
Working for an endangered species was an important aspect of her time at Fossil Rim.
“It added more to the experience to work for an endangered animal, because the reason why I got into wildlife rehabilitation is that humans are the cause of these animal population struggles,” Halverson said. “APCs have suffered habitat loss, so anything I can do as a human to give back to this species means a lot to me. Making sure these birds don’t go extinct is the least we can do.”
No matter where her professional journey goes from here, Halverson hopes to tell her children about these weeks in Central Texas.
“Being able to say I played a part in this season of chicks makes me so happy,” she said. “In the future, if we get to the point where the Attwater’s prairie chicken is no longer endangered, it will be cool to tell my kids that I was there to help.”
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate