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. Greater sage-grouse 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. Gunnison sage-grouse are approximately two-thirds the size of greater sage-grouse.
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.
A Bird By Many Names
When you hear the term “sage grouse,” it’s usually in reference to the greater sage-grouse. Other common names you might hear for this bird include: sagehen (mascot of Pomona College and Pitzer College in California), sage cock, or sage chicken. Ironically, Lewis and Clark’s own nicknames -– cock of the plains or heath cock — failed to stick.
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. Click here to learn more about Gunnison sage-grouse.
Meet the Family
Sage grouse are part of the family called Phasianidae. They are closely related to other species of grouse, as well as prairie chickens, wild turkeys, pheasants, partridges, and old world quail. Blue grouse, spruce grouse, and ruffed grouse all inhabit forest habitat, while sharp-tailed grouse and lesser prairie-chickens live in open country, like sage grouse. Here’s a little more about sage grouse’s closest relatives:
Like the sage grouse, lesser prairie-chickens rely on large prairie and steppe landscapes shared by agricultural producers, primarily ranching operations. At one time they inhabited vast ranges, but their wild prairie habitat has dwindled by 85 percent.
The lesser prairie-chicken today inhabits limited 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.
Learn more about the NRCS Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative
Listen to 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 are spectacular, and provide the inspiration for Native American dances across the nation.
Listen to the sharp-tailed grouse
Watch a video of their fancy-footwork dancing
Wildlife Viewing – How To Watch Respectfully
Across the west, you’ll find several opportunities to watch the amazing spring dance of sage grouse. We encourage you to get out there and see the dawn event for yourself, but encourage respectful viewing as these birds are extremely sensitive to disturbance.
Going to a lek with a guide or on a tour helps minimize any disturbance to the mating birds. If you’re in a blind, for example, you must arrive in the dark before the birds congregate, stay silent, and leave after the birds leave. Recommended options for viewing opportunities:
– Dubois Grouse Days in Idaho
– Watchable wildlife site in Gunnison, Colorado with Sisk-a-dee
– Leks in this Wyoming Fish and Game guide on where to ethically view sage grouse
Tips for Ethical Viewing of Sage Grouse
• 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 since most breeding is complete but the males are still actively strutting.