How Do Sage Grouse Mate?

Sage grouse conservation measures benefit "umbrella" benefits for other sagebrush-dependent species, scientists say. (Scott Copeland photo)

March 14, 2016

Photo by Scott Copeland. Sage grouse males show off for a female at sunrise on a lek.

Ask an Expert: Trisha Cracroft, NRCS Idaho State Biologist

What the heck is a lek?
A lek is the name of an area where sage-grouse congregate in the spring. The males choose an area where their courtship display can be easily seen by females. That’s why leks are usually found where there is less vegetation. These areas may be sparsely vegetated naturally, or due to activity by animals or humans.

When do sage grouse gather on a lek?
Lekking generally happens from late February through May. The timing for when sage-grouse gather on specific leks will depend on the weather and where you are in the range. Although several males will display on a lek, all of the females will choose the same one or two males to mate with (yup, it’s ladies’ choice!). All of the males will display the entire lekking season at the same site. Actually, April is a great time to visit leks, since the males are still displaying but the majority of the hens are finished breeding–visitors are less likely to disrupt the mating process then.

Why is healthy sagebrush important for mating?
While males are displaying, females move in on the perimeter of the lek and evaluate the males–they use the sagebrush for cover. After a hen chooses a male to mate with, she flies off to nest in the surrounding sagebrush and places her nest on the ground, usually under a sagebrush. Sagebrush plays an important role in providing hiding cover for a hen while she’s on her nest. The forbs and insects available in the surrounding sagebrush ecosystem provide much-needed nutrition as she incubates her eggs.

Meet the Expert!

Trisha cuddles with a radio-collared sage grouse hen in Idaho.

Trisha cuddles a radio-collared sage grouse hen in Idaho.

What fires you up about working to conserve the sage-steppe?
Working at a landscape-scale on issues that benefit several hundred species! The sage-grouse effort has brought together soil and water conservation districts, federal, state, local, private, and nonprofit groups, all of which are united behind the common goal of getting conservation on the ground across land management boundaries. It’s really been exciting to work with all of the partners on how to get the greatest conservation dollar out of every project.

What do you enjoy outside of work?
Anything outside with my husband, Warren, and our dog, Molly Brown, including: backcountry skiing, trail running, hiking, playing soccer, ultimate frisbee, whitewater rafting, hunting, mountain biking, and gardening.

Watch the mating dance at an Oregon lek last spring, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy’s “Sage Grouse Lek Cam”

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.