There is no doubt; as one of the most endangered birds in America, Attwater’s prairie chickens (APCs) need all the help they can get.
For Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge Manager Terry Rossignol and his staff at the 10,541-acre facility in Eagle Lake, Texas, they battle Mother Nature on behalf of these birds daily. On June 8, Warren Lewis and Tye Chandler made the trip south on behalf of Fossil Rim Wildlife Center’s marketing department to learn more about the place that Fossil Rim sends its APCs each summer.
While that acreage may sound impressive, Rossignol said APCs have less than one percent of their original native coastal prairie remaining. He added that ideally the refuge would be triple its current size.
“The smaller the habitat, the less genetic diversity for the species,” he said.
The refuge has a permanent staff of seven, plus 2-5 college student interns, 2-3 dedicated volunteers who contribute at least once a week and four Youth Conservation Corps high school students who play a role for two months during the summer.
“The college interns take care of the birds once they arrive from various facilities and are placed into the acclimation pens that we have on the property,” Rossignol said. “Then, they monitor the APCs once they are released. We have the crew of area high school kids – from Sealy, Eagle Lake, Columbus or Brazos High Schools – that get paid over those two months.
“We have plenty of projects for them to help us complete. And the volunteers who come out here to contribute their time and effort are so appreciated.”
The refuge was established in 1972.
“A Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game warden, Thomas Waddell, was pretty instrumental in getting this place established as a refuge,” Rossignol said. “The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) purchased this property, and then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) purchased it from WWF.”
More than a century ago, there were roughly one million APCs roaming the Texas and Louisiana gulf coastal prairie. Unfortunately, the species has been battling extinction in the wild in more recent times.
In the 1980s, the refuge population peaked at 222 birds. Since the mid-1990s, the peak year was actually 2016 with 130 APCs.
“In April 2016, we got flooded out right as the birds were nesting,” Rossignol said. “The topography here is so flat that heavy rain quickly leads to flooding, so it was devastating for these birds.”
The current wild APC population is estimated at 42 birds, with 32 on the refuge and 10 on private land in Goliad County, which is further south near Victoria.
“You just have to keep plugging away,” Rossignol said regarding the determination of people who work for the future of APCs. “Generally, wild APCs only live 1-2 years due to a variety of threats. The average annual survival rate for birds that are released is about 20 percent, which actually isn’t bad, all things considered.”
When weather is not presenting a threat, predatory animals are often the main concerns for APCs. On a related note, as guests drive through the refuge, they will see that an effort is made to have a cluster of spikes pointed vertically atop each fence post.
“The spikes are to keep avian predators – hawks and owls – from perching, and they are seen most often in the winter months,” Rossignol said. “We try to prevent their perching by removing objects more than three feet high or placing these spikes on them. Part of the management here is constantly checking the posts, as well as putting metal plates on the fence to shine and keep APCs from potentially flying into it.
“Those are examples of duties our Youth Conservation Corps can really help with. When there was more prairie acreage years ago, owls and hawks wouldn’t venture this far out into the prairie.”
APCs are never more vulnerable than during the breeding season when males are doing their courtship display, known as “booming.”
“The spring is when we see high peaks in mortality for males,” he said. “They are very vulnerable when booming, especially when there are only a few males and there aren’t as many eyes watching each other’s backs.”
Snakes – especially coachwhips and rat snakes – are a threat because they eat APC eggs. Some other potential APC predators include opossums, skunks, raccoons, bobcats and coyotes.
Even food plots on the refuge that are used to grow sustenance for the APCs face threats.
“Feral hogs will try to get into the food plots, so we do our best to ‘hog-proof’ the fence around them,” he said.
An insect was causing major problems for APC chicks, but that threat is not quite as severe nowadays due to a concerted effort.
“Identifying and starting to control the red imported fire ant problem has been very important,” Rossignol said. “We’ve been treating them pretty aggressively out here for several years. The biggest threat is during the birds’ first two weeks because these fire ants consume other insects that are necessary to brood survival.”
As Rossignol was discussing the wildlife in the refuge, he shared a compelling fact.
“Prairies are actually the second-most diverse ecosystems after tropical rainforests,” he said. “For example, there are more than 250 species of birds alone on the refuge.”
The refuge has numerous bodies of water, such as manmade Horseshoe Lake, which provide a home to alligators. However, they do not factor into the life of APCs.
There is also plant life on the refuge not conducive to APC success that must be addressed.
“If we were to totally let the land go on its own, in five years it would turn into brush country,” he said. “Our biggest invasive concern is Macartney rose. We’ve done a fairly decent job trying to control it the last few years, but it’s a constant battle. It’s very thorny and takes over similar to an acacia bush in Africa.
“The APCs don’t want to get near it. They like to be able to see far distances, plus it provides good hiding places for their predators. If it grows tall enough, it can provide perches for avian predators.
“Another plant threat is the deep-rooted sedge. It usually grows in ditches or other wetter areas.”
There is no shortage of cows on the refuge, and they are there for a reason.
“We don’t own the cows,” Rossignol said. “We lease out the grazing rights to a rancher, and he takes care of them. He understands exactly why his cattle are here, so he’s easy to work with. They serve the same purpose as what bison did historically.
“They keep the grasses from becoming too thick, which can be an issue for APCs, especially in wet years. Cattle trails are used by APC chicks to maneuver. The key is to find the right amount of grazing, and overgrazing usually isn’t an issue as long as we are getting rain.
“The four main grasses to make up the coastal prairie are little bluestem, big bluestem, switch grass and Indian grass. Forbs and wildflowers are also prevalent. How much rain we get can affect the type of vegetation we see. You definitely see the colors change here, as far as how the prairie looks.”
There are humps on the prairie landscape called mima mounds or pimple mounds, which indicate the area has never been leveled or plowed.
Also a practice utilized by Fossil Rim, prescribed burning is a key part of management at the refuge.
“It is a major tool we use here,” Rossignol said. “We burn about a quarter of the refuge every year. That’s usually done in August through October, but also in December and January.
“It’s done to mimic the historic use of fire through this area from Native Americans, as well as Mother Nature with lightning strikes. It rejuvenates the grasses.”
Facilities that raise APC chicks to be released on the refuge currently include Fossil Rim, Caldwell Zoo in Tyler, Abilene Zoo and Houston Zoo.
“One of the things that makes communication go a lot smoother is the continuity in personnel,” Rossignol said. “We now have a group in the captive breeding programs and the private landowners in Goliad County that have all been involved at least 5-10 years. Everyone knows what needs to be done, and everyone is on board.
“It seemed like years ago the personnel turnover was much greater; that’s like reinventing the wheel every year. Janet (Johnson) and Cara (Burch) have given Fossil Rim’s APC program a lot of consistency, which is very important.”
Fossil Rim is historically the largest APC production center. For 2017, Fossil Rim hatched 262 chicks. In July and August, shipments from the production centers to the refuge will be underway. However, the young birds – essentially in their teenage years to provide some human context – are not immediately just set free to wander about the unfamiliar coastal prairie.
“When birds come in from Fossil Rim and other facilities, one of our half-dozen acclimation pens are their home for about two weeks,” Rossignol said. “The pens, which are 30 feet by 50 feet, house 8-12 pre-adult birds each. They are surrounded by an electric fence, have grills at the bottom to keep digging critters out, plus a double-level roof to keep great-horned owls out. Owls used to kill APCs when we had a single-layer roof.
“There are solar panels that power the electric fence. Every couple of years, we move the pens, because APCs can really wear out the vegetation (underneath) after awhile. When it’s time, we just open the gates to the pen and they usually walk out on their own.”
The diets of APCs need to be diverse for optimal nutrition.
“In the first month, chicks are primarily insect eaters,” Rossignol said. “Really anything that moves, except the fire ants I talked about. As the chicks grow older, they’ll start nibbling on green grass shoots that come up, eat petals off flowers, and continue to eat insects, as well as berries and seeds.
“As for adults, they eat berries, seeds and green grass shoots. They are very curious, so anything that moves could be a meal. We feed them thawed frozen vegetables in the acclimation pens, and then continue to do so for about 30 days after release while slowly weaning them off until they’re on their own.”
Even though refuge staff has had decades to utilize trial and error for the APCs, helping the birds overcome the diversity of adversity remains challenging.
“We’ve tried to figure out the best way to care for these APCs over the years, but the key is to eliminate or minimize the threats that directly affect them,” Rossignol said. “We can create more habitat by planting native grasses and working with private landowners, but that’s limited to a bit at a time since it’s costly and time-consuming.”
On the other hand, the refuge is capable of accommodating a lot more APCs than it is now.
“We could sustain 350-400 birds here,” he said. “That’s the aim. They might overflow into private lands, but we would love for that to be the biggest issue.”
As for refuge visitors, they range from extremely knowledgeable to those who are hearing about APCs for the first time.
“We find that some guests come specifically to see an APC, and they know what they’re looking for,” Rossignol said. “Others stop by because they see our sign beside the highway and have no idea what an APC is.”
Each year, the refuge creates more awareness when it holds its APC Festival in April. This year’s version drew 350 visitors, including people from Canada, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Australia. Encouraged about that success, the staff looks forward to the 2018 event, which is slated for April 14-15.
“Especially during our annual festival, as guests are leaving we hear ‘I didn’t realize you all did so much out here, or how beautiful the coastal prairie is,’” Rossignol said. “They learn more about this ecosystem and what the APC is all about. When you see the lightbulb click in someone’s head – that’s the gratifying part of the job.”
In the 1980s, the entire refuge was open to the public. Now, there is a five-mile tour route and two hiking trails. The tour route is open 365 days per year from sunrise to sunset and admission is free.
“On the first Saturday of each month, we will provide guided tours for free, which will include the staff-only areas,” Rossignol said. “All we ask is that people call ahead for reservations. During tours in March and April, while we can’t guarantee it, there is a very good chance of seeing booming in particular spots.
“February through April is our peak visitation season, primarily to see the males do their courtship dance, but also the prairie wildflowers beginning to bloom. During the rest of the year, we wish we could share the secrets of the refuge with more visitors.”
The refuge’s visitor center is open on weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. To learn more about the refuge, check out https://www.fws.gov/refuge/attwater_prairie_chicken/ or call 979.234.3021.
To make a donation, go to http://www.attwater.org/. That’s the page for Friends of Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge, which is a crucial source of support for the facility.
For example, the friends group recently presented the refuge with a temperature-controlled transport trailer that can haul up to 120 APCs. Meanwhile, the van that has previously served that purpose could only accommodate 60 per trip.
“This trailer will be a big help moving birds from the captive facilities to the release sites, so this was a huge contribution from our friends group,” Rossignol said. “We appreciate them so much.”
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate
June 19, 2017