“Welcome to Eagle Lake, Goose Hunting Capital of the World,” a sun-bleached sign reads as I pull onto Highway 3013. On this April morning, I’ve come for a different kind of avian sport: a bird count at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, about sixty miles west of Houston. One of the rarest and strangest birds in the nation, the Attwater’s prairie chicken once ranged across coastal Texas and Louisiana and numbered close to one million. But the environment it requires has been paved over and plowed up, and today less than 1 percent of its habitat remains. Fewer than two hundred of the birds are left in the wild, and this 10,000-acre patch of southeast Texas is the only place where the public can encounter them.
I’ve seen them hundreds of times—on YouTube, that is. I’d watch videos on repeat of a tufty male, all 1.5 pounds of him, performing his courtship ritual: erecting his tail feathers, pounding the earth, and emitting “booms” from brilliant orange air sacs to attract hens off-screen. I found myself rooting for him to get some action, partly because he’s really giving it his all, and partly because the fate of his species depends on it. The Attwater’s has had several brushes with extinction. When it was added to the endangered species list (the original class of 1967, quite the honor), there were about 1,000 individuals in the wild, but by 2002, the wild population was less than 50. After Hurricane Harvey flooded the bird’s habitat in 2017, that number dipped to just 26. The prairie chicken, though, may be making a comeback. Thanks to a robust captive-breeding program started in the 1990s, more than 4,500 prairie chickens have been released back into the wild, and in 2021 (the most recent year for which numbers are available) the population reached a nearly thirty-year high of 178.
Most years the national wildlife refuge makes it easy for amateur naturalists to see the spring spectacle of the mating dance. Rangers host a public bird-viewing festival every April called Booming-N-Blooming, give tours throughout the year, and offer four miles of hiking trails. This year, due to staffing shortages and the construction of a new visitors center, Booming-N-Blooming was relegated to a Facebook live stream. But I scored a private tour for me and my dad, a birder. Today, by God, I was going to see the real deal.
Before I go any further, let’s just get this out of the way: it’s a funny name. Friends think I’m joking when I say the Attwater’s prairie chicken is my favorite bird, that I think it should be the Texas state bird (the Texanist agrees), and that I have it tattooed on my ass (okay, one of these is a joke). The term “chicken” doesn’t exactly lend it charisma, though the Attwater’s—a subspecies of the also-rare greater prairie chicken—is not actually a chicken at all. The two species share little more than an inability to fly higher than a middle-school pole vaulter. If you can look past the unfortunate name, “they are really remarkable creatures,” says John Magera, former refuge manager. “Their mating behavior is so extraordinary. It’s not like any other bird.” Like all members of the ground-dwelling grouse family, male Attwater’s have evolved elaborate dances and exotic plumage to entice picky hens. Their effusive dappled feathers, loud orange air sacs, and even louder booming make the prairie chicken Texas’s own bird of paradise, and the coastal prairie its rainforest.
The near extinction of the bird mirrors that of its habitat. The coastal prairie used to span six million acres from Brownsville to the Mississippi. Specialized grasses, such as little bluestem and switchgrass, are keystone species here and thrive in soft, loamy soils. Unfortunately for them, so do rice, cotton, and tobacco. Starting in the mid-1800s, colonizers turned virgin prairie into plantations and ranches, and then, a century later, developers turned those working lands into suburbs. This pattern makes prairies among the most endangered ecosystems in the world.
I grew up in the southeast suburbs of Houston, amid endless parking lots and highways. All the sprawl makes it easy to forget that the Bayou City, true to its name, is rooted in waterways. This forgetting has cost us dearly. Flooding after Hurricane Harvey and other major storms has been catastrophic for humans and wildlife alike, and the destruction of coastal prairie makes the effects of storms more severe. Coastal prairie acts like a sponge during heavy rains: porous soil, twenty-foot-deep grass-root systems, and slight changes in topography help contain and absorb floodwaters far better than the impermeable surfaces that define urban sprawl. Landowners and planners are slowly catching on, planting prairie grasses instead of golf courses in the suburbs and installing pocket prairies in the middle of the city. For instance, the Coastal Prairie Conservancy (CPC), a nonprofit that works to restore this imperiled ecosystem, has protected close to 30,000 acres across the region since 1992, much to the chagrin of real estate developers. But when suburbs started flooding, year after year, developers saw the benefits of “putting in natural wetlands rather than blue-colored ponds,” says the CPC’s president and CEO, Mary Anne Piacentini. Wetlands can act as flood infrastructure and as a selling point.
Most of the CPC’s land was previously developed or farmed. In contrast, the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge is the largest stretch of untouched coastal prairie left in the state. (To put that in perspective, CPC’s properties contain about ten acres of undisturbed coastal prairie.) If restoration projects are a testament to humanity’s ability to learn from our mistakes, the refuge is a place you come to forget about people altogether. “The refuge is our old-growth forest or coral reef,” Magera says.
After a 45-minute drive west from our home in Katy, my dad and I see the lights of the refuge’s visitors center glowing in a cloudy dawn. It’s the only building on the property and enveloped by a copse of oak trees, all of which stand out in otherwise unobstructed prairie. We are greeted by Brandon Melton and Remy Sutherland, wildlife biologists and our tour guides for the morning. We climb into a van and rumble through patchworks of waist-high grass shivering in the headlights. Melton steers us down dirt roads while describing the sorcery of prairie chicken spotting. “They’ve been shutting down at eight-thirty like clockwork,” he says, explaining that the birds start booming at dawn and continue for about two hours.
Attwater’s are fickle, but that also makes them predictable. During mating season, which is from January to May, your best bet to find booming males is in leks, mating arenas of shorter grasses where males can more visibly display. If it’s brooding hens you’re after, try the taller grasses, all the better to conceal their nests. Though the average life span of an Attwater’s is roughly two years (two mating seasons at most), “there is this generational loyalty to certain booming grounds,” says Sutherland. And that’s where we are headed.
“Is that a bird?” Sutherland pipes up from the back seat, cutting off another one of my dad’s birding questions. “All right, there you go,” Melton says, killing the engine. About a hundred feet down the road, I see the inky silhouette of a rotund grouse perched on a water pipe. I stop breathing and whip my binoculars up just in time to see his air sacs deflate, suggesting the echo of a boom. We exit the van in silence. The bird stands there peacefully, his call seeming to ask: “Is anyone there?” Through binoculars, I scan the perimeter of the lek for females but come up empty. The wind is in full pitch, and noise from the highway carries easily over open prairie. If there’s another boom, I don’t hear it. Eight-thirty strikes and, like clockwork indeed, he seems to be done for the day.
As we wait for another sighting, there is plenty to see. Despite their reputation as plain, flat, and monotonous, prairies are roaring boils of life to a trained eye. Over thousands of years, wind and water molded the soft, damp soil into slow crests and falls of land. These topographical features, called mima mounds and prairie potholes (more unfortunate branding), may seem microscopic compared to the expansive horizon, but these slight elevation changes provide essential scaffolding for remarkable biodiversity. To appreciate the prairie, I squat down and look closely. From the drier soil of mima mounds, I see peaks of switchgrass spraying out in geysers of khaki stems. In a pothole, my gaze sinks into a kiddie pool of bluebonnets gratefully soaking up a wet winter. And that is just today. Should it rain tonight, pockmarks of gray grass become ephemeral wetland tomorrow. Over the course of spring, wildflowers pass the blooming baton from primroses and bluebonnets to coreopsis and sunflowers. It’s not the prairie that is flat, but our imagination.
There are four main forces of creation and destruction on the prairie—rainfall, grazing, fire, and drought—and refuge staff must help nature along. Grazing by bison, which provided necessary pruning of dense foliage for ancient prairies, is now simulated by livestock. Wildfires that gave shape to Attwater’s mating patterns are now precisely calculated through mosaic burning, in which conservation biologists torch squares of prairie on a rotating basis over several years, ridding the land of invasive species such as fire ants and clearing it for a future mating ground.
Just as the land now requires human intervention to keep it wild, so do the prairie chickens. In addition to the refuge, there is an accomplished captive breeding program run in coordination with the refuge, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, zoos, private landowners, and conservation organizations. Landowners with sufficiently intact grasslands (including, perhaps surprisingly, NASA) install enclosed leks where adults are paired to mate for maximum genetic diversity. The eggs hatch in rigorously controlled labs of zoos and wildlife centers. In a good year, three hundred lab-raised juveniles are released into the wilds of the refuge and the Refugio-Goliad Prairie Project, 600,000-plus acres of private working lands co-managed by the Nature Conservancy. (This preserve is actually home to a larger population than the national refuge.) Biologists have even tracked birds that land on the other side of Highway 3013, across from the national refuge. “They can’t fly much, so we don’t know how they got over there,” Melton says.
Between breeding seasons, the Attwater’s population declines from natural causes, but biologists are making big advancements in minimizing these losses. Researchers discovered that red imported fire ants were eating insects that chicks relied on as a food source, explaining the infuriating trend of starving chicks on the prairie. Then flooding events from 2016 through 2018 further pummeled what could have been prolific boom years for the bird—Harvey wiped out 90 percent of the wild population, according to Magera, and almost certainly would have meant extinction were it not for the captive breeding program. The researchers remain hopeful, though; 2021 saw the highest bird count in several decades, and the number is expected to be at least that high this year. “You gotta have hope in this industry,” Magera says.
Seeing all the work that goes into keeping the prairie healthy, I realize it’s fraught to depict the refuge as a pristine place untouched by human interference. No amount of fences and acreage can keep out the damage humans have done to the rest of the world. Invasive species, flooding, drought, biodiversity loss, and extreme temperatures do not respect the Attwater’s endangered species status. This view also erases the millennia-old relationship humans have had with the coastal prairie. Native peoples of this region—the Karankawa, Sana, and Akokisa tribes among them—performed controlled burns to renew the land and stave off larger, uncontrolled fires. Robin Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass and a member of the Potawatomi nation, compares controlled burns to “a paintbrush sweeping across [the land] and making new environments for plants and animals.”
“The refuge will always be a refuge,” Melton promises, but its surroundings are harder to speak for. “Eagle Lake wants to become the next Katy,” says Magera, thanks to an expansion of Interstate 10. He fears that the refuge could become “a postage stamp of prairie.” Our drive back to Katy shows a time-lapse film of Houston’s development story, as ranches and small farms off the two-lane road give way to scenes from I-10: highway construction, warehouses, Adult Videos XXX!!!, and housing developments that gobble up For Sale signs by the acre. This could mean worse flooding on the prairie and fewer places to release Attwater’s when their population reaches a critical mass. While exploiting natural resources is a Texas tradition, so is our tendency to be deeply stubborn gatekeepers of what makes something “authentically Texan.” For those who need a reason, it’s still possible to value the Attwater’s and coastal prairie as the original Texans they are.
“One of the things we fight in this business is people sincerely asking you ‘What is the purpose of this animal?’ ” says Magera. “I just think it’s an awful thing to ask. I feel sorry for folks because they think everything is about us.” It’s this type of thinking—that you need to have some inherent use value to deserve a place under the sun—that allowed for the near-total destruction of coastal prairie. “If you don’t know it, you can’t love it,” Piacentini says of the prairie. “And if you don’t love it, you don’t want to support it.”
Back in my dad’s garden, it is fully and truly spring. He grows native flowers, grasses, and trees to the exclusion of all else, and he marks his success in the monarchs that feed on milkweed, the chickadees that hatch in his birdhouses, and the “volunteer” flowers that emerge without his planting. Kneeling down to study the sunset-hued petals of copper canyon daisies, I realize I had forgotten that flowers smell good. This fragrant reminder shocks me into a bittersweet reverie and a feeling of being home at last. Perhaps I would have gone on forgetting if I hadn’t spent the morning looking for rare birds on the refuge.