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The Human Connection

5.1-LewisdrawingFor thousands of years, the Plains Indian tribes lived among sage grouse, hunting them for food and mimicking the male displays in ceremonial dances.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805 provided the first written account of sage grouse. Meriwether Lewis spotted the bird on the mouth of the Marias River on June 6, 1805, and later wrote:

“The Heath Cock or cock of the Plains is found in the Plains of the Columbia and are in great abundance from the enterance of Lewis’s river to the mountains which pass the Columbia between the Great falls and Rapids of that river.”

5.1-huntingwithfamilyToday some hunters still pursue sage grouse where numbers are high enough. It’s a legacy they hope to pass on to their children too. For many, the joy lies in taking their sporting dogs out into the open country with anticipation of a flushing bird winging into the sky. As Montana hunter Brandon Moss wrote in the Montana Sporting Journal (2012):

“Still to this day, my heart skips a beat as a seven-pound bird erupts in front of me, just after walking through a brace of hunting dogs only to watch the rhythmic beat of their wings set sail over the horizon.”

Falconers also have a special connection to sage grouse and big open country free of power lines and other hazards to their hunting birds. They’ve joined the conservation efforts as well, like many who’ve fallen in love with this country, whether on foot, horseback, driving muddy rutted roads, or herding cattle and sheep.

Identification & Family

5.1-femalewithmaleinbackThe largest of all grouse in North America, males are nearly twice the size and weight of females. Males are 65 to 75 cm long (25-30 inches) and weigh 1.7 to 2.9 kg (4 to 6 lbs). Both sexes have small heads and long tails with black bellies and clean white underwings, easily spotted in flight.

Flying Power

Despite their heavy bodies, sage grouse are strong fliers with recorded speeds up to 78 km/ hour (almost 50 mph) and single flights of up to 10 km (six miles).  However, sage grouse often prefer to walk. Running is difficult on their short legs. Hiding or flying are their best responses to threats.

Names

Sage grouse are technically divided into two separate species: Greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and Gunnison sage-grouse (Centrocercus minimus), a smaller bird with a limited range in Colorado and Utah.

When we write about “sage grouse” at Sage Grouse Initiative, we’re referring to the greater sage-grouse.. You might hear nicknames like these too: sagehen (mascot of Pomona College and Pitzer College in California), sage cock, or sage chicken. While Lewis and Clark named the bird for science, their own nicknames failed to stick – cock of the plains or heath cock.

5.1-gunnisonsagegrouse 5.1male-tatiana
Gunnison sage-grouse Greater sage-grouse

 

Meet the Family

Sage grouse are part of the Family called Phasianidae. They join other grouse, lesser prairie-chickens, wild turkeys, pheasants, partridges, and old world quail. Blue, spruce, and ruffed grouse all inhabit forests.

Sharp-tailed grouse and lesser prairie chickens live in open country, like sage grouse. Both sharp-tails and prairie chickens are impressive dancers, too, with their own style of display. Here’s a little more about their close relatives.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Like the sage grouse, lesser prairie-chickens rely on large prairie and steppe landscapes shared by agricultural producers, primarily ranching operations. Once, their ranges were vast, but their wild prairies of sandy grassland have dwindled by 90 percent, and the sagebrush steppe that’s home to sage grouse, by 50 percent.

Lesser Prairie Chicken

Lesser Prairie Chicken

The lesser prairie-chicken today inhabits restricted areas in five states of the southern Great Plains (south of where you’ll find sage-grouse). The species is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Learn more and listen to the lesser prairie-chicken.
Watch a YouTube of Lesser-Prairie Chicken dancing on their booming grounds.
Read about the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative that’s modeled after SGI.
Read a Washington Post story about the lesser prairie-chicken.
Meet one Texan landowner working to wave the Lesser Prairie-Chicken.

Sharp-Tailed Grouse

Sharp-tailed grouse overlap with sage grouse in their range, but can use more habitats, especially steep canyons and mountainous country that the sage grouse avoid. Their populations are stable. Males dancing on the lek just might give sage grouse a run for the money. In a word – spectacular.

Learn more and listen.
Watch a YouTube of their fancy-footwork dancing that is the inspiration for Native American dances today at Pow Wows across the nation.

photographerinbusWildlife Viewing – Watch Respectfully

Across the west, you’ll find several opportunities to join guided tours or sign up for time in a viewing blind to watch the amazing spring dance of sage grouse. We encourage you to get out there and see the dawn event for yourself if possible. There’s nothing comparable to the actual experience of listening to the strange popping noises of the males, hearing the wings swooshing, and watching an unfolding drama on a wild dance floor as dawn showers the prairie with light.

The reason to go with a guide or a tour is the birds are extremely sensitive to disturbance. If you’re in a blind, for example, you must arrive in the dark before the birds, stay silent, and leave after the birds leave. However, if you participate in the Dubois Grouse Days, you can watch from inside a school bus within view of several leks. You can also reserve a photo blind in advance for an up-close experience. That’s a great community event in Idaho held annually.

spottinggrousefrombusTips for Ethical Viewing of Sage Grouse

From Wyoming Department of Fish and Game:

•  Arrive at the lek at least one hour before sunrise.
•  Don’t drive on or near the lek and park away from the edge of the lek.
•  Turn off the engine and lights and stay in your vehicle.
•  Use binoculars and spotting scopes to observe birds.
•  Don’t make loud noises or sudden movements.
•  Do not leave the lek site until the birds do.
•  Keep your pets in the vehicle or, better yet, leave them at home.
•  Do not trespass on private land.
•  Postpone your visit if roads are muddy.
•  Late April is the best time to visit leks because most breeding is complete but the males are still actively strutting.

Wyoming Fish and Game has put together a guide to where and how to ethically view the sage grouse and leks of that state.

Diet & Range

5.0sagebrushcloseupDiet – Sagebrush Plus

During the winter, sage grouse live only on sagebrush leaves – 99 percent of their diet.  Sage grouse lack muscular gizzards and cannot consume seeds like most other birds. In the other seasons, the birds will eat insects and forbs, but after the first frost hits they lose those tasty items. Just as a panda bear can’t live without bamboo shoots, the sage grouse can’t survive without sagebrush.

To appreciate the special diets of sage grouse takes looking at what they need in different stages of life – from chick to adult. There’s also seasonal variety; and specific foods that hens must eat prior to laying eggs. Sagebrush is an essential component of their diet – but it’s not the only requirement. Throughout the year, the birds nip the leaves off of plants, and will also feed on buds, flowers, fruits and insects.

range_mapRange – All About Sagebrush

The range of sage grouse today covers 186 million acres in 11 western states and two Canadian provinces.  However, three-quarters of the birds inhabit just 27 percent of the range. That’s why the Sage Grouse Initiative emphasizes restoring sagebrush grasslands in the core area — the places where the breeding populations are highest and conservation benefits the largest number of birds.

Sage grouse are linked to sagebrush ecosystems of western North America covering 11 western states: Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, South Dakota, and North Dakota, as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Historic versus Modern Range

Historically sage grouse likely ranged over 14 western states and three Canadian provinces. The birds have been extirpated from Arizona, New Mexico and Nebraska, as well as British Columbia. Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the birds declined as their range dwindled from cultivation, loss of sagebrush, and other alterations.

Seasonal Movements

5.1-migration2Migration

Unlike some migratory birds that may fly thousands of miles between breeding and wintering grounds, sage grouse migrations are more modest. They’re big lumbering birds with an awkward flight. They tend to hopscotch across the landscape, flying and landing and flying again, and sometimes just walking along. That’s why linking habitat corridors for sage grouse is so important for them to get from point A to point B.

Despite their physique, some sage grouse do fly impressively far – like the Saskatchewan, Canada, population that winters 70 to 100 miles into Montana. Those birds have no choice but to fly south away from deep snow to find accessible sagebrush for food and cover.

Some sage grouse may be residents throughout the year, when they find favorable conditions. Other birds fly between winter, nesting, and summer areas – in various combinations. Factors affecting whether birds migrate include gender, behavior, seasonal habitat quality and placement, and the weather.

Birds are highly attuned to weather conditions. In a mild winter, sage grouse may choose to fly to their nesting grounds in midwinter. If snow comes early in the fall, sage grouse move more quickly to wintering grounds.

Read more about the longest sage grouse migration, from Canada to central Montana, 100 miles one way.

Seasonal Calendar

Overview

Throughout the year, sage grouse are social birds that are found in flocks.  When not nipping off leaves for food, sage grouse spend time preening, head-scratching, stretching, and dust-bathing.

Escaping Predators in Every Season

Sage grouse, not surprisingly, are tasty targets for predators in every season. From the air, the greatest threats are golden eagles. When the birds soar over grouse on a lek, the displaying ends for the morning. Other raptors also may prey on sage grouse, too, including red-tailed and ferruginous hawks. That’s why grouse avoid trees that offer raptor perches.  From the ground, the birds have to watch for coyotes, foxes, and even bobcats occasionally. Nests attract a greater array of predators – like badgers, weasels, ravens, magpies and even snakes.

Sage grouse try to escape predation by crouching low to the ground, blending in with their surroundings, or hiding under shrubs. They may fly away as well. A hen on a nest will attack ground squirrels to defend her eggs and chicks. She may also perform a distraction display—dragging her wings on the ground to look injured to draw a predator away from the nest, similar to a killdeer’s behavior.

Spring

Can you spot the females watching this male?

Can you spot the females watching this male?

Courtship: Dancing males and picky females

Sage grouse courtship ranks as one of the top wildlife wonders of the world.  Dozens of males gather as the sun rises on the prairie to display and vie for dominance in a show of strutting accompanied by an eerie popping sound as they inflate their chest air sacs. For grouse, it’s more than a two-step on a Friday night. It’s serious business. The males gather on a lek (open area in the sagebrush) every morning before dawn throughout early spring, typically mid-March through early May.

The females show up about a week after the males established their territories and will move individually or in groups among the displaying males. By the end of the month, they will have made their selection. A female approaches her chosen mate by squatting low with her wings spread.

Female sage grouse are ready to breed as yearlings. A few dominant males tend to receive almost all the attention from the females. Peak mating time takes place shortly after sunrise, although the birds may occasionally mate at sunset or under a full moon. (For details on male behavior on the lek, see the behavior section).

While dozens of male sage grouse dance on a lek, all vying for the attention of females, very few of them will mate. They also have no choice in the matter. The females make the selection. In one study in Wyoming, two males performed three-quarters of the mating. Males on the Lek – Jockeying for the best position

While dozens of male sage grouse dance on a lek, all vying for the attention of females, very few of them will mate. They also have no choice in the matter. The females make the selection. In one study in Wyoming, two males performed three-quarters of the mating.
Males on the Lek – Jockeying for the best position

Males displaying on a lek for females are engaging in more than fancy dancing. They’re angling for the best spots on the dance floor and ultimately the highest chance of mating with a female.  Mature males defend their territories with vigor  – confronting each other in a series of stylized moves.  Researchers have named their interactions like dance steps – Face-Past, Parallel, Reversed, and Display. When one male moves, the other male moves – assuring the birds keep their spacing and position — often only a couple feet away from each other.

And it’s not all a ritual. Males will engage in actual fights. They lower their bodies and tails to the ground and smash their wings into each other — sometimes leaping a bit in the air for extra power. They may even grab each other with their bills to try to drag them away. These fights tend to take place early in the display season. Older males are more dominant. The yearling birds tend not to join in on the leks until the peak of the season, and may then be driven out by the experienced males.

Females are not always safe from the fray. While they may be the selectors of a mate, copulating can be a risky business. A male may knock a male off of a female during mating – although the actual disruption rate is fairly low.

Strutting Display

The expression “strut one’s stuff” could have come straight from watching a sage grouse male in full display mode. A male fans his spiky tail, raises his yellow eyecombs and filoplumes, and struts a few steps forward. At the same time, he inflates a pair of yellowish throat sacs hidden in his white breast feathers that make a loud plop sound that’s most like uncorking a champagne bottle. Males may strut six to ten times a minute for three to four hours per day.

Mating

Nests are hard to find—these children look at one after nesting season is over.

Nests are hard to find—these children look at one after nesting season is over.

Sage grouse are polygynous, meaning males mate with more than one female. From years of observing sage grouse on leks, biologists find that most of the females mate with the one dominant male on the lek. Females select the male. However, they’ve also found that the underdogs (subdominant males) still have a chance to mate off the main lek with females willing to pursue them there.

Nesting

Males play no role in nesting or raising chicks. After mating, the hens fly to suitable nesting habitat (from about a half mile to three miles away, but sometimes more than 12 miles off). Most hens scope out nesting spots one to two weeks in advance of mating. Yearling females sometimes wait until after mating to find a nest spot. The top choice is tall sagebrush with excellent canopy cover. Hens that nest under sagebrush have more than twice the success rate of hens that nest under other plant species.

5.1-femaleSpring Diet:
Pre-laying Hens Need Calcium, Phosphorus and Protein

The onset of courtship and breeding season marks a diet shift for females that will be mating and then laying eggs. The pre-laying hens seek out forbs that are high in calcium, phosphorus, and protein.  Their success with nesting and clutch size is closely tied to nutrition.

Safe in the Sage

Sagebrush cover near nests is also important for success. Another key component is tall, dense grass—called residual grass, because it’s leftover from the last growing season. Making sure both residual grass and sagebrush are available for nesting hens greatly improves chances for nests to be hidden from predators. Herbaceous cover may give the birds extra scent barriers as well as hiding cover. The nest itself is a bowl-shaped depression that the hens scratch out and then line with soft materials—like leaves and feathers.

Some studies indicate hens favor nests with cover on two sides but not entirely surrounding their nest. This way, hens remain hidden but still have an escape route from predators. If a nest fails, females will re-nest—although this varies throughout their range. Adults will re-nest more than yearlings.

5.1-sagegrousenestEgg-laying and Incubating

Sage grouse typically lay between six and 10 eggs that may range in color from olive-buff to greenish white with brownish dots.  The first egg is laid from three to fourteen days after mating, and then at a rate of two eggs per three days. The hen begins incubating after laying the last egg. She leaves the nest briefly in early morning and evening to feed on leaves nearby. Her arrivals and departures are as stealthy as possible to avoid detection. She will even deposit large droppings away from the nest, likely to draw attention away from the actual spot.

Summer

5.1-chickChicks – hatching and early life

The chicks hatch typically after 25 to 29 days. Not all chicks hatch- a brood may vary between 15 and 70 percent survival. Despite this great range, sage grouse are known for low reproductive rates and high annual survival compared to other game birds.

The chicks are precocial- covered in down with their eyes open. Soon after hatching, the brood follows the hen out of the nest to feed. In their first week, they often hide beneath the hen’s wings and ruffled breast feathers. The hen calls almost continuously to her chicks and her young call back in different pitches. The chicks are voracious eaters of insects and forbs, and grow quickly.

As the chicks grow, broods of hens with their chicks join up together to forage for food. Their daily routine on a summer day tends to go like this. Start foraging for tasty leaves in the early morning and then loaf for a good part of the day before resuming nipping buds in the afternoon until twilight when it’s time to find a sheltered roost. They may spend 60 percent of their day eating. During mating season, the routine is much altered — waiting to eat until after the daily morning drama on the leks.

Fledging

By 10 days chicks may start to fly weakly, and by five weeks are strong flyers. The broods stay together for 10 to 12 weeks. In late summer they head away from sagebrush that’s becoming too dry and find wet meadows and other sites that are high in leafy plants, wildflowers, and insects that also flourish in lusher habitats. After the broods split up, the juveniles may flock together or disperse as all sage grouse start to move toward their winter sagebrush habitats.

5.1buckwheatflowerSummer Diet

Within a couple days of hatching, chicks are following hens looking for insect-rich foods. In the first three weeks, ants and beetles especially provide juveniles the protein they need to survive and grow at this critical stage.

As the chicks grow, they branch out from insects to add forbs (broad-leaved plants that are mostly wildflowers) to their diet and gradually add sagebrush. They eat a higher percentage of forbs than adults. An Oregon study in 1994 found that diets of sage grouse young included an impressive 34 genera of forbs and 41 families of invertebrates.

As sagebrush habitats dry out, adults and juveniles make their way to wetter sites where they can dine on forbs as well as sagebrush. They may feed in small burned areas within sagebrush, wet meadows, hayfields and other irrigated areas.

Fall

5.1-fallflight-TatianaHeading Toward Winter Range

From late August to December most sage grouse are slowly flying and walking toward their winter range, places with less snow and plentiful sagebrush for food and cover. Most birds have left their summer ranges by October. En route, the birds take advantage of a variety of sagebrush grassland habitats. How far sage grouse move depends on meeting their needs for sagebrush shelter and food.

Winter

Sagebrush Dependent

Sage grouse gather in loose flocks and move toward their winter range where they can find sagebrush that’s above the snow and shelter from the elements. As they go, they transition from eating mainly forbs in September to strictly sagebrush by December. In winter, large groups of sage grouse may roost together. Depending on the weather, they’ll seek out shade or sun.5.2-winterhabitat

Sagebrush leaves make up the entire diet of sage grouse in winter. In most places, they’re feeding on big sagebrush. In some places, they prefer low sagebrush, while in others they select Wyoming big sagebrush. They also seek out mountain big sagebrush. When available, they’ll nip the leaves of black sagebrush, fringed sagebrush, and silver sagebrush. The preferences may be tied to higher levels of protein and volatile oils in certain kinds of sagebrush.

Just for Kids

kids_grouseSeriously Sage-Grouse Coloring Book
Coloring a sage grouse is just the start. Trace a maze following Lewis and Clark’s journey, noting all the places they saw sage grouse. And much more …

Bird Feats:  Sage Grouse – Longest Dance
Filled with photos, this book is written for kids ages 8 to 12. Published by Farcountry Press.

Next-Gen Conservation
Sage-Grouse in the Schools
Nine YouTube videos

Sagebrush Steppe Poster
Can you find and name the animals and plants in this poster? (Courtesy Audubon Rockies)

Know Your Grouse
Bob Hines Artwork to Print & Color

Additional Resources

Additional Resources

There are wonderful resources available to learn more about the Sagebrush Community. Many are available through links found throughout this site — for example, Landowner Resources connects you to field guides as well as important information concerning fences and livestock water tanks. And our News & Media pages are full of current news items and stories. Also check out the videos in our always-changing Photo & Video Gallery.  Our Science  & Policy section also takes you to many of our publications. We note additional resources here.

If you’re looking for still more, please contact us.

The Bird

All About Birds, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

A Beginner’s Guide to Greater Sage-Grouse, USFWS

Grouse of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, PDF, by Michael Schroeder

Sage Grouse and Sagebrush Conservation, BLM

Save the Last Dance (a book by Joel Vance)

The Sage Grouse in Wyoming, by Dr. Robert Lansing Patterson, 1952.

Just for Kids

Kids Page, Audubon Rockies

Sage-Grouse Education / Activities for Kids, BLM

Seriously Sage Coloring Book a PDF

Bird Feats: book featuring sage grouse for its longest dance and written by SGI Communications Director Deborah Richie

The Wildlife

Birds in a Sagebrush Sea, PDF, by Christine Paige.

To find out more about a whole range of sagebrush wildlife, view the PowerPoint by Kent McAdoo, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, Sagebrush Associated Wildlife Species.

Mule deer & sage grouse in Wyoming SGI/TNC study – Did you know mule deer share winter range with sage grouse? Find out more.

The Perilous Journey of Wyoming’s Migrating Pronghorn – award-winning article in High Country News.

 

The Habitat

Pollinators & Sage Grouse, Fact Sheet by USFS

 Why Care About Sagebrush? Fact Sheet by USFWS

Greater Sage-Grouse:ecology and conservation of a landscape species and its habitats, Studies in Avian Biology (Peruse and download chapters on USGS Sagemap website).

Sagebrush (Encyclopedia of the Earth website page).

Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson 1962. (Chapter six on sagebrush)

The Human Footprint in the West: A Large-scale Analysis of Anthropogenic Impacts, on USGS Sagemap website.

The Sagebrush Sea, book by Stephen Trimble (beautiful natural history).

 

The People

NEW On the Land: Celebrating Award-Winning Farmers and Ranchers  Who Improve our Environment: Leopold Conservation Award Program (writer: Andy Rieber). Sand County Foundation website link.

NEW  Sage Grouse Initiative Rancher Success Story Series Launches:
#1: North Dakota: Planting Wyoming Big Sage on Brooks Ranch Enhances Sage Grouse Habitat, by Steve Stuebner for SGI.

 Cowboy Life in Southeast Oregon (Oregon Public Broadcasting, 10 min. video)

Warner Valley: Cowboys & Ranchers, slideshow set to music by Andy Rieber

Cattlemen to Cattlemen TV Shows

Out on the Land RFD TV Shows

Help Thy Neighbor (an article by Andy Rieber)

Yakama Nation: Tribal Connection to Sage Grouse

Life on the Range, stories about ranches and ranching

John Fielder’s Ranches of Colorado, photography

The Journals of Lewis and Clark