The day starts at 7:00 in the morning with a visual check of all the chicks currently at the zoo. The smallest and youngest chicks are in brooder boxes, large boxes with heat lamps built into the top for warmth. Chicks that are around a week old live in “Stackers,” taller, more open boxes similar to brooder boxes but with adequate space for the growing birds. Chicks 50 grams and above live outdoors in gravel pens with heat lamps for warmth at night and cuttings of native plants for shelter.
After all the chicks are checked on, the cleaning begins. The lining in Stacker cages are changed daily and the gravel in the outdoor pens is raked daily. While their enclosures are cleaned, individual chick weights are recorded to monitor their health and growth. A diet is prepared for each enclosure with specially formulated grain for Attwater’s prairie chickens as well as live insects and a greens mix including carrot, peas, kale, and apple. Each enclosure’s diet is weighed and doled out four times a day based on the age of the chicks and the number of chicks in each enclosure.
A member of the vet staff comes by twice a day to check on the prairie chicken chicks and provide treatment if necessary to help the chicks grow big and strong.
Sometimes, the interns have help in their daily task of taking care of the prairie chicken chicks. Domestic hens are often given Attwater’s prairie chicken eggs to incubate, and these hens keep these chicks with them for the first few weeks of the chicks’ lives. The hens “brood” the chicks – allow the chicks to nestle under their feathers for warmth – and lead them to the food with a distinctive cluck.
The afternoon is primarily filled with projects around the department. As more chicks hatch, more outdoor pens are needed to house the growing chicks. Pens are scrubbed clean, filled with gravel, and some have grass planted in them and kept watered until the chicks arrive. Brooder boxes and Stackers are cleaned thoroughly after chicks grow large enough to move outside and before new chicks arrive. For the gravel pens, new trimmings of fresh plants such as hackberry limbs have to be prepared every few days so the chicks can always have fresh plants in their enclosures.
As an intern working with the Attwater’s prairie chicken chicks, there is never a dull moment between feeding, cleaning, and caring for these endangered birds. We are proud of the opportunity to be a part of so many important lives, each one of which helps bring such an amazing species back from the brink of extinction.