Texas Tech University

TexasTech students part of largest study in state on prairie chickens


They set out into the dune land from their temporary home - a shack on a dirt alley in sparsely populated Yoakum County. No road signs to guide, just miles and miles of shrub-covered hills.

The pair kicks up fine sand as they wade through dense fields of shinnery oak. The grassland plants are ankle tall and crackle under their boot-covered feet.

Blake Grisham, a Texas Tech doctoral student, holds one half of the telemetry system, a pole shaped like a weather vane. His assistant, Tech undergraduate Chris Frey, holds the other half, a radio that beeps when they get closer to their destination: the suspected nest of a lesser prairie chicken.

If one of the chickens - candidates for the endangered species list - has built a nest in the scrubs, the students must document its location as part of the largest study of the birds ever to be done in Texas, according to researchers.

The beeps get louder and more frequent as Grisham and Frey climb to the crest of a hill. They creep forward until a chicken, its colors a nearly perfect mimic of its habitat, bursts from the scrubs. It glides low over the dunes and disappears into the grassland.

"They are really secretive. They have to be or they'll die," said Grisham of the birds, which typically weigh less than a pound.

The young men comb through the shinnery oak, but find no nest. They may have interrupted the female too soon or she may have been injured rather than nesting, they guess. But she's tagged. The nine-gram radio transmitter looped around her neck will lead them to her again.

This game of trial and error is worthwhile, the pair said, because it's for lesser prairie chickens - dodgy, little birds found in ever-shrinking patches on the Great Plains. They are famous for their mating antics: Each spring, male chickens flock to breeding grounds, called leks, and dance to attract females. They inflate red, balloon-like sacs on their necks, raise their feathers and stamp their feet.

"(It's) a bar scene. It's a bunch of goofy males dancin' and tryin' to get the attention of the females and the females usually aren't interested," Grisham said.

Despite the attention the antics have drawn, the number of the birds in the state has dipped to an all-time low, according to researchers. Texas Parks and Wildlife reports estimate about 6,000 birds remain in the state. The species could be extinct in 20 years if current trends continue, a Texas A&M study found.

The chickens survive on scattered pieces of private land west of Lubbock near New Mexico and in the Texas Panhandle. Their future hinges on private landowners, who could be the species' saviors or destroyers, said Heather Whitlaw, Texas Parks and Wildlife diversity specialist.

To try to save the birds, the department has commissioned two universities, Tech and Texas A&M at Kingsville, to conduct the largest study of lesser prairie chicken ecology ever to be done in the state, Whitlaw said. At least $400,000 will be spent on the Tech portions of the study, which will continue until 2012, she said.

"By the end of the study, I'd presume it will up into the hundreds, if not thousands, of birds that we'll know something about," she said.

Grisham, Frey and two other Tech students have moved to Yoakum County to collect as much information as they can about the brooding habits of the chickens. They retreat each evening from the hot dunes to sleep on thin cots in the borrowed shack, where they've stacked bottled water in a corner by the refrigerator and strewn wildlife magazines and bird guides across countertops.

Earlier this year, the foursome captured and tagged roughly two dozen chickens. Now, they're tracking the birds and their babies over an estimated 200,000 acres of private land, while another team from Tech does the same in Canadian, a Pandhandle town near the Oklahoma border. They want to radio-collar at least 50 birds a year, but weren't able to find that many birds this year.

Other Tech researchers are doing aerial studies to determine where the chickens mate.

Wildlife departments in each of the five states where lesser prairie chickens survive are doing similar studies and have committed to writing state-specific recovery goals for the chickens, Whitlaw said.

"What we are really trying to find out," said Mark Wallace, an associate professor at Tech who is helping with the lesser prairie chickens study, "is what happens to the young."

The radio transmitters on hens led Grisham and company to this summer's hatchlings. Once the tiny birds hatched, the team glued 2-gram radio chips on their backs to track them daily. And find out why so many die.

If the babies live long enough, the chips will be replaced with nine-gram collars.

But most of Yoakum's first tagged hatchlings did not fair well, weakened by a string of thunderstorms and preyed upon by other animals, Grisham said.

"(This) is a really critical time for these little guys. They are just so small and they are prey for everything - hogs, coyotes, snakes," he said.

Then, there are humans.

Lesser prairie chickens "won't adapt to people. They've already shown they are not adapting to people," Wallace said.

About 90 percent of the species' original range is no longer suitable, mostly as a result of human development, according to a 2008 Lesser Prairie Chicken Interstate Working Group study. Oil drilling, wind farms, suburban sprawls and modern farming practices have sliced the habitat, but little attention has been paid - until now, Tech researchers hope - to how this impacts the birds, according to the study.

So, can people change to save the birds?

"Landowners ... can manage their land uses in ways that are favorable for chickens. Managing ... cattle and chickens goes pretty well hand in hand. They like the same kinds of things (open grassland). Some other species aren't so lucky," Wallace said.

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