This Man Spent 30 Years Solving A Rare Bird’s Murder Mystery

The Attwater prairie chicken has been on the verge of extinction for decades. Now it has one more chance.

By Erik Vance
Published 28 Aug 2018, 11:31 BST
A male Attwater's prairie chicken stands with his neck sac expanded in a courting display. These ...
A male Attwater's prairie chicken stands with his neck sac expanded in a courting display. These endangered birds are found in small numbers in southeast Texas.
Photograph by Bates Littlehales, National Geographic

The first time Mike Morrow met the Attwater prairie chicken in the wild, it was the middle of the night. It was 1983 and he was a young graduate student at Texas A&M, helping another researcher. They arrived early, before sunrise.

“You’re sitting there in the pitch black and then all of a sudden you start hearing these birds fly in,” says Morrow, now a longtime biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “And then not too long after that, they start their vocalisations – their cackling, they’ll start booming. All of this is when you can’t even see them. Then, as the morning dawns and it starts to get light, you see all these antics on the booming ground in front of you.”

The booming ground is a small plot of prairie, maybe an acre, where male Attwaters once congregated to strut about, slap the ground with their feet and make low hoots – or booms – while the females looked on.

The Attwater is a drab, unremarkable bird for most of the year. But during breeding season, it undergoes a transformation, inflating its bright yellow pouch with each boom.

There in the pre-dawn hours, Morrow marvelled at the haunting scene. But not long after his first encounter with Attwaters, their population mysteriously crashed to just a few dozen animals and they were rounded up to be bred in captivity, where they still live today. Morrow has spent the 30 years since living on a small refuge, trying to solve the mystery of the disappearing chickens. It’s a whodunit that he now says he’s solved.

Attwater prairie chickens, once ubiquitous on southern prairies, had at one point dropped to just 470 individuals, most of them in a small preserve in South Texas.
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic

A mystery culprit

The first thing to know about the Attwater prairie chicken is that everything eats it. Hawks and other raptors, bobcats, coyotes, owls, feral dogs, even cats – anything with teeth or claws will take a shot at the bird. As a result, its primary defences are large numbers and large spaces.

Throughout the 20th Century, the Attwater lost both, as their prairies disappeared piece by piece. By the 1960s it was clear they were in serious enough decline to be included in the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 (the precursor to the modern Endangered Species Act) as part of the so-called “class of ’67,” America’s first official endangered species.

By the 1980s, when Morrow first saw them, they seemed to have levelled off somewhere around 1,000 to 2,000 individuals. Morrow ended up doing his doctoral research on Attwaters. But by the time he got a job as a biologist in 1988 at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, an hour outside Houston, the population was in freefall.

A decade later, FWS biologists decided to start breeding the animal in captivity in facilities like the Fossil Rim Wildlife Refuge, near Dallas. Biologists like Morrow started scooping up as many Attwaters they could find, but it was nearly impossible. The only birds they could find—19 in all—were started in an emergency breeding program. Not long after they disappeared from the wild completely.

What happened? Was it a disease? An unknown toxin?

One theory was that the population had hit an unknown tipping point, and, like the passenger pigeon, collapsed from lack of habitat. They didn’t seem to be carrying any diseases and the fact that they were dying out across their range suggested it wasn’t anything local, like logging or water contamination.

Meanwhile, they weren’t taking well to captivity. “We didn’t have a guidebook when we started this program. Everything that we’re doing now has been through trial and error,” says Janet Johnson, who runs the breeding program at Fossil Rim.

For instance, initially the males were separated by dark screens so that they wouldn’t hurt themselves trying to fight. But many of the females seemed uninterested in the males chosen for them (selected to maximise genetic diversity) and laid sterile eggs. It turned out that fighting was a crucial part of getting the females’ interest. So they took down the screens and allowed a few scuffles among the males.

A newly hatched Attwater's prairie chicken basks in warm light at the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, where hundreds of chicks are raised during breeding season.
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic

Eventually it began to work. Breeders at Fossil Rim and then the Houston Zoo started cranking out chickens to be released. But once released, they didn’t breed in the wild. Something was still wrong. By the early 2000s, the future for the chicken looked bleak. But still, no one knew what was killing them. Every year, teams would breed them, raise them, and release them onto the preserve just to get eaten. It was a very expensive meat delivery service for local predators.

“We pour our blood sweat and tears into doing this and it didn’t work. And we didn’t know why. It was incredibly frustrating,” Morrow says.

Frustrating and obsessive. Morrow is a quiet man with a bushy moustache and glasses that make him seem like your favourite grandad. He’s friendly enough in person but there is a distance to him; a sense that he’d rather be in the field with his chickens than with other people. He’s serious, dogged, but rarely enthusiastic—unless the chickens are booming.

“He’s got to be the smartest person I’ve ever worked with,” says John Magera, the manager of the Attwater preserve. “I don’t think ‘passionate’ quite goes far enough. This is a lifestyle for him.”

A break in the case

That passion finally paid off in 2005. The released birds began to survive, but their chicks would quickly die. Morrow and his team discovered they were terribly malnourished and often dehydrated.

Some kind of disease maybe? The chicks seemed to be dying during a crucial time when they left the nest to forage for insects. Morrow took soil samples and discovered a dramatic drop in soil insects. Something was clearing away all the chicks’ food. Morrow consulted his wide library of books. Buried in a 15-year-old entomology paper was the answer.

"Fire ants!" Morrow says, in one of his rare moments of emotion. "Those things are evil. E - VIL!"

One of the country’s most aggressive and hated invasive species—with a painful bite—fire ants came to Texas in 1953 and reproduced to ubiquity in the 1970s and 80s. The paper he was reading said they caused a 75 percent drop in arthropods 90 percent drop in other ants.

Without anyone knowing, ants were starving the chickens. It was an odd notion, but it made sense to Morrow. Around the same time, an exotic feed company called Mazuri came up with a new pellet formulated just for Attwaters that greatly increased the breeding numbers. So he decided to test the theory. They laid out several plots – first small and then larger – removing ants and watching how the birds fared. Like clockwork, birds in treated areas bred just fine but those in ant-riddled areas struggled.

Now he had a plan. He had the birds, all he had to do was treat the entire park with non-toxic ant killer and wait. In 2010, the park had a great insect year and the chicken population reached record numbers.

Coreopisis wildflowers at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Reserve in South Texas.
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic

But then disaster struck, followed by more disasters. In 2011, Texas saw a state-wide drought. Then came Hurricane Bill in 2014, followed by the Memorial Day Flood in 2015 and the Tax Day Flood of 2016. The birds struggled on, with 120 or so in the wild. Then, in 2017, Hurricane Harvey nearly wiped them all out. By 2018, only a few dozen chickens remained.

“We’ve just had a series of bad breaks from mother nature,” Morrow says.

Where others might see failure, Morrow is bullish. He thinks this is the year everything turns around. Good weather, a bumper crop of more than 550 birds bred in captivity, and no ants. If the Attwater prairie chicken is coming back, now is the time.

One final release

Mike Morrow is at the Houston Zoo bright and early on the big day. Every other week this summer, a team of biologists has gathered birds from breeding centres, tagged them, weighed them, and disinfected them. Soon, they’ll all be released on the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, an expanse of 10,000 acres established by FWS in 1972.

Fifty-eight birds get their final checkup before they are driven to the reserve. The birds are young and squirmy in the zookeepers’ hands. Morrow inspects them like a commander surveying the troops. At best, 20 percent of them will survive the year.

At the reserve, he takes each bird out of their box, as though saying farewell and wishing them luck. “I’m not an optimistic person, people will tell you that,” he says. “But we’re almost there. I really feel that way.”

Fish and Wildlife officials think it’s possible the species will be fully recovered at 6,000 birds. Morrow doubts there is enough habitat for half that. By next June he’ll finally know if his theory about the ants is correct. He doesn’t have a lot of time left in this career, a few years perhaps. But before he retires he’d be satisfied with a couple hundred breeding pair in this tiny corner of Texas. A few hundred birds for 30 years of work seems a good trade. Then, one more time, he’ll go out to the prairie before dawn, set up a chair, and wait.


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