Sage-Grouse Strut Their Stuff

There are few birds in the American West that know how to party like sage-grouse. Oh sure, you’ve got your hummingbirds with their swooping and diving and your huge, gawky sandhill cranes with their flamboyant, noisy mating rituals. But for sheer spectacle, nothing beats the sage-grouse and now is the perfect time to see them strut their stuff because it’s mating season out West.

Sage-grouse dancing occurs from March to May. In early spring at dawn, and often at dusk, sage-grouse congregate on “leks”— ancestral strutting grounds to which the birds return year after year. To attract a hen, males jockey for position, fan their tail feathers and swell their breasts to reveal yellow air sacs, and then, just as quickly, deflate them to make an utterly unique “swish-swish-coooopoink!” sound that can be heard from over a mile away. Scientists aren’t certain what about this flamboyant display is attractive to females, but it works. You can watch it here

Sage-grouse are the charismatic ambassador of the “Sagebrush Sea,” a term given to the vast sagebrush prairie that once sprawled across thirteen western states and three Canadian provinces. Lewis and Clarkdescribed the grouse in their journal as the “cock of the plains”, and nineteenth century travelers reported seeing huge flocks of sage-grouse that darkened the sky as they lifted from valley floors. Native Americans emulated sage-grouse in ceremonial dress and dance. Settlers hunted the bird for food, and even collected sage-grouse eggs in spring for table use. Centuries of westerners have admired sage-grouse as fellow dwellers of the high desert, and birders travel from around the world to see sage-grouse in the wild.

Unfortunately, like too many other iconic western wildlife species, sage-grouse are in trouble. Sagebrush grasslands are a heavily used landscape. Humans have plowed, sprayed, burned, drilled, developed, mined and grazed millions of acres of sagebrush habitat. The remaining habitat is fragmented and degraded by weeds, wildfire, juniper encroachment, utility corridors, roads and fences. Sage-grouse range has been reduced by almost half with the loss of sagebrush steppe and grouse populations have declined to just ten percent of their historic numbers.

William Hornaday of the New York Zoological Society was among the first to express concern for sage-grouse in 1916, publishing a pamphlet titled “Save the Sage Grouse from Extinction: A Demand from Civilization to the Western States.” Conservationists have heeded his call and launched a west-wide campaign to protect the grouse and the Sagebrush Sea. After struggling for more than a decade, we finally got a break in 2011 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service committed to review sage-grouse for listing under the Endangered Species Act by 2015. The date certain for a range-wide sage-grouse listing decision has compelled a multitude of federal and state agencies and local entities to finally develop conservation strategies to protect and recover sage-grouse and their habitat.

Defenders of Wildlife is heavily engaged in these planning processes. We are analyzing thousands of pages of documents and working to improve federal and state conservation strategies. In Washington, DC, we are urging the Obama administration and Congressional representatives to strengthen conservation initiatives for sage-grouse, and out West we are diligently working to ensure that new development won’t harm the species.

But sometimes you’ve just got to make time to enjoy these spectacular birds. We invite you attend a show at a sage-grouse lek this spring. Dress warmly, bring binoculars and coffee, and be ready for fun. And then join Defenders to conserve sage-grouse so that they may continue to impress for generations to come.

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- who has written 16 posts on dotWild.

Mark Salvo is Senior Director for Landscape Conservation for Defenders of Wildlife.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.