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Saving a Species: The Sutton Avian Center is trying to bring the Atwater Prairie Chicken back from the brink.

BARTLESVILLE, OKLAHOMA -- They are just beginning the behaviors that mark these birds as unique, and that also marks a busy season on this branch of the Sutton Avian Research facility.

"They're just starting to get those hormones in," says prairie chicken researcher Bonnie Gibson.

"Did you hear that boom," she asks a visitor of their mating call? "It's getting close to that time when we'll need to start separating out the males."

Gibson spent the last two years helping built a unique experimental breeding operation to save a cousin to these Greater Prairie Chickens, the imperiled Atwater's Prairie Chicken in Texas.

"The ideal prairie chicken habitat is for flat, wide open spaces," she says. "Unfortunately there aren't a lot of those kinds of spaces left in the world."

These birds are a king of captive practice for the Sutton team.

They form the brooding stock of chicks that will hatch this summer, be kept away from human contact beneath these outdoor nets, and then released in the Flint Hills of Nebraska.

"We're on track," says Gibson confidently.

Eventually the breeding program will include the endangered Atwaters.

Gibson says, "The way our facility is set up we're going to, hopefully, produce, eventually, about 1000 chicks a year for release."

In coming months these nurseries, these incubators, these prairie chicken houses will all be very busy places.

"We're on the cusp of chick season and we're working really hard to get prepared, to get the buildings clean, to get our enclosures set up, and to come up with a plan for how we want to take care of these chicks," she says.

A final season of practice, of trial and error, of booming numbers, hopefully just in time for the Greater to save the Atwater.

Gibson says, "We're trying to produce as many as we can."

For more information on the Sutton Center and their prairie chicken research go to
http://www.suttoncenter.org