National Geographic : 2002 Mar
Don't tell these chickens the sky isn't falling. The air is full of hawks that soar and circle, patrol and scan. Then they come plummeting in a rush of outstretched talons, fierce yellow eyes, and beaks like shears. At sunrise I watched the Attwater's prairie-chickens trans form from mottled grouse into ornaments that exalted the flat coastal plain of Texas. They struck a rigid pose, tail feathers held over their backs in spiky fans. Special neck feathers cocked up behind their heads like horns. On each side of the throat big patches of golden skin with magenta margins inflated like bal loons, and extra gold flared over the eyes. Strutting about, the performers bowed while deep notes boomed from the resonant air sacs. Oo-loo-woo. Oo-loo-woo. Then they boogied, each stamping his feet as though trying to drive them into the ground. You've seen this before-the tail fans, the thumping footwork-in Plains Indian dances, drawn from the courtship displays of male prairie-chickens gathered each spring on their booming grounds. Suddenly the males have transformed again. Where a dozen paraded a second ago, I can't find one. Flattened with heads stretched out on the sod, the birds seem to have melted into it. Why? A hawk just swept by. The sky is falling! This is no false alarm. There are about 10 other male Attwater's and 20 females left in the wild. They in habit two separate grassy patches in Texas totaling 12,400 acres, the remnants of six million acres of coastal prairie that sup ported as many as a million Attwater's a century ago. The grouse were overhunted early and hit by habitat loss every year since. Eastern North America held throngs of a close relative whose booming awakened early colonists. Called heath hens, they declined from the same causes. By 1929 one male remained. It endured for three lonely winters, and then the heath hen was gone. Now we're near the point where the loss of one more Attwater's Assortment of Enemies The first wave of assault came from hunters. Then farmers cultivated thousands of acres of prairie-chicken habitat. By 1937 a population of as many as a million birds had been cut to less than 9,000. Farm expansion, industry, and sprawl, especially around Houston (top), have since left the grouse with one percent of its original range. In the late 1980s three years of drought followed by three stormy breeding seasons decimated the species, wiping out 500 birds in one county. "Most biologists would never have guessed that that popula tion would have gone so quickly," says biologist Mike Mor row. With fewer than 50 birds left on tiny islands of habitat, the greatest threat now is from predators such as hawks (far right) and owls, which leave severed heads as calling cards.