The largest of all grouse in North America, sage grouse males are nearly twice the size and weight of females. Both sexes have small heads and long tails with black bellies and clean white underwings, easily spotted in flight. Note, the female has a mottled breast and neck, while the males sport a white breast and white neck feathers above a black neck ring.
Both sexes have blackish bellies which contrast sharply with white under-wing coverts when the birds are in flight. Females appear to dip from side to side while flying. Adult males range from 26 to 30 inches in length and average 4 to 7 pounds in weight; adult females range from 19 to 23 inches in length and 2.5 to 3.5 pounds in weight. (Info and graphic courtesy of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks).
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.
Sage grouse are divided into two separate species: Greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and Gunnison sage-grouse (Centrocercus minimus). The Gunnison sage-grouse is smaller, and characterized by a different genetic makeup, tail feather pattern, and mating call. They inhabit sagebrush hills up to about 9,500 feet in elevation. Mostly, this species resides in the Gunnison Basin of Colorado, as their name attests, though small populations exist in other areas of Colorado and Utah.
When we write about “sage grouse” at Sage Grouse Initiative, we’re usually 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.
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.
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 prairie habitat has dwindled by 85 percent.
The lesser prairie-chicken today inhabits restricted areas in five states of the southern Great Plains (Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas). The species is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
NEW Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative Website!
Learn more and listen to the lesser prairie-chicken.
Read a Washington Post story about the lesser prairie-chicken.
Meet one Texan landowner working to save the lesser prairie-chicken.
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.
Wildlife 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.
Tips 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.