Johnson Space Center, Houston
Attwater’s Prairie Chickens Move to NASA JSC
Once there were about a million of them, but now fewer than 50 are left in the wild. Before long, some of the endangered Attwater's Prairie Chickens in the Houston Zoo's breeding program will move to NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Establishment of a breeding facility on about two acres of JSC land is part of a new agreement between the zoo and the space center. That agreement also sets aside about 10 acres of JSC land to grow eucalyptus trees and other plants as food for zoo animals.
"The JSC Team is excited about this partnership," said JSC Director Jefferson D. Howell, Jr. "Part of NASA's mission is to understand and protect our home planet, and we are happy to play a small part in preserving the Attwater's Prairie Chicken population. This project also provides students an opportunity to see for themselves the important role that environmental management plays here on Earth and as humans venture further into space."
It will be part of JSC's educational outreach program, which seeks to foster the next generation of explorers by encouraging young people to study technical subjects. The facility will give area students an opportunity to see first-hand the importance of habitat conservation and protection.
The ground-dwelling Attwater's Prairie Chicken is a medium-sized grouse, with brown, black and buff-colored feathers. The males have golden neck sacks, and during mating season use them to produce a booming sound that can be heard for half a mile. The birds once occupied about 7 million acres of prairie along the Texas and Louisiana Coasts. Only about 1 percent of that prairie remains.
Loss of habitat, predation and hunting so reduced the bird's numbers that they were declared endangered in 1967.
"This is a win-win partnership for everyone involved," said Zoo Director Rick Barongi. "The prairie chickens benefit as a species by having a quiet, secure, and safe location for the breeding program and JSC employees and area school students will benefit through the program’s education component."
It grew out of a chance meeting between the Zoo's then-president Philip Cannon and Howell. "As they talked about the missions of their respective organizations, it became clear there were areas of common interest and concern," said Sandra Parker of JSC's Environmental Office.
The zoo's breeding program began in 1994 with two dozen eggs taken from the nests of wild flocks in Texas. Today there are 26 birds involved in the Zoo's Attwater’s prairie chicken captive breeding program. Zoo officials believe a more remote and quiet location will provide a better environment for the propagation of the species.
"We believe the JSC site will not only provide a quality environment but will also give us the capacity to breed more birds," said Houston Zoo Bird Curator Lee Schoen. "Our goal is to increase the number of birds so the population can survive without human intervention."
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