Breeding program aids recovery

Roseanne McKee
Sutton Center Conservation Aviculturist Bonnie Gibson holds a greater prairie-chick. Roseanne McKee/Examiner-Enterprise

The Sutton Avian Research Center is practicing its prairie chicken breeding techniques at the prairie chicken center location southeast of Bartlesville in anticipation of raising the Attwater’s prairie chicken, one of the most endangered birds in North America.

According to the Sutton Center’s website, Attwater’s prairie chickens, Tympanuchus cupido attwateri, which only live about two years, are a grassland grouse that once inhabited six million acres of prairie along the Gulf Coast from Corpus Christi, Texas, north to the Bayou Teche waterway area in Louisiana, and for some 75 miles inland. As grasslands were reduced by human settlements, industry and agriculture, the estimated one-million bird population fell sharply. Listed as endangered in 1967, by 1996 the number of wild Attwater’s Prairie Chickens had fallen to just 42.

The center’s breeding recovery plan objective is to increase propagation and release efforts to boost wild populations to self-sustaining levels.

“We’re using Greater Prairie Chickens to practice our breeding techniques, said Sutton Center Aviculturist Bonnie Gibson.

Once the Sutton Center begins raising the chicks, they will be released at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, where they will likely encounter red imported fire ants, hawks, among other predators and hurricanes with flooding.

“Once we get the [Attwater’s] eggs, every single one is going to matter, so we can’t afford to make mistakes,” Gibson added.

Once the eggs are gathered, they are disinfected and measured. The color is documented and each egg gets its own record. Nest information … incubation record. “On the back is a graph, and we use it for incubator information,” she said.

The center uses Brinsea incubators. “There’s a warm, heated pillow that sits over the eggs. The more natural the incubation, the better it is,” Gibson said. They have “excellent survivability” using these incubators.

In that same room there are forced-air incubators. “The eggs tilt in the incubator. We don’t have to do it, which is wonderful, and they hold more eggs,” Gibson said. In addition, “some domestic chickens get to incubate the eggs.”

When the chicks are first hatched, they are in a metal brooder which is kept at 95-99 degrees.

“We put towels in front of the windows so they can sleep. Feather dusters serve as substitute moms, so they have something to cuddle with as they grow,” she said.

“After the first two days of life, they go into stacker cages with ultraviolet light (mimicking the sun) of no more than 95 degrees,” Gibson said. “They live in there until they reach 50 grams in about 14 days.”

An important part of ensuring the chicks thrive is their diet. A lot of science goes into creating the diets for the chicks. Tayler Frazier from Quapaw, is one of those tasked with assembling the chick diets using very specific ratios of cut vegetables, peas, collards, carrots, kale, romaine, green beans and apple.

Nutrient-dense pellets are then added — along with meal worms or crickets. When the chicks are younger, the pellets are ground up and added to the vegetables, apples and bugs, which are meal worms at first. So that they learn how to find food in the wild, they are given live crickets, which hop around, which encourages the chicks to forage, Gibson said.

“We have scorecards for each feeding,” she said, which describe how well they ate. “They’re fed four times a day.”

They put a light onto the food to draw attention to it. “A wooden skewer is stuck through the bars of the cage, like mom scratching around, and that prompts them to inspect,” Gibson explained.

In their living area, dandelion plants are suspended from above for the chicks to eat, play with and to keep them occupied, Gibson explained.

After they grow, the greater prairie chickens are transferred to a chick building. Nets around habitats, assembled by the staff, are used to protect the prairie chickens from harm. Piles of large flexible tubing, which can’t be eaten by the birds, enhance their habitat.

“They get nervous around bright colors. Adults can fly 60 mph, and they fly blind, so we have to be careful around them,” Gibson explained.

For this reason the staff wear neutral colored clothing without patterns. The staff’s shoes must be sanitized before they enter areas where the birds are kept. In some areas, special shoes are worn by staff and guests. All of these efforts ensure that the birds live in a cleaner environment with a reduced chance of disease.

Once ready, the chickens are placed in pairs, or sometimes with a two female siblings and a male, for the breeding season.

There are also net-covered prairie fields, where the chickens are able to live in a protected, yet natural, environment. The nets can be lowered during wind storms to prevent them from being damaged, Gibson said.

Gibson, who has a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Ecology from Oklahoma State University, previously worked at the International Crane Foundation and the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species in a program that bred cranes for release.

When her husband’s employer transferred him to Oklahoma, Gibson accepted a job at the Tulsa Zoo. She learned that the Sutton Center’s prairie chicken breeding facility would soon open, and knowing she wanted to work there, she applied. Once hired, Gibson completed her zoo duties and has now been at the center for about two years. She is actually allergic to the prairie-chickens, but this has not stopped her.

“It’s all worth it for the prairie chickens,” Gibson said with a smile.