Animal Tales: A Great White Sage Grouse

Photo of a rare white sage grouse in Wyoming by Tracie Fernandez.

June 5, 2017

Photos and story by Tracie Fernandez

This story originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of WREN Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

“Let’s take the grandkids out to see the sage grouse,” my husband suggests during the most recent mating season of the greater sage-grouse.

As dawn breaks on a March morning, we head out into the Big Horn Basin with our grandkids, snacks and photography gear in tow. As a distant lek comes into view, we see what looks like a white rooster. “What is that?” we ask each other.

The white rooster begins to strut, fan its tail feathers, puff out its chest and make popping sounds. Is that a sage grouse? It’s fancy dancing like a sage grouse, but why is it white? Where are all the other  grouse?

I posted the photo with some questions on Facebook. Flooded with responses, I was told this was a photo of an extremely rare leucistic greater sage-grouse—one of only four that have been reported in Wyoming.

Photo of a rare white sage grouse in Wyoming by Tracie Fernandez.

This bird is white because it lacks pigment due to a genetic mutation. Sage grouse males display for mates each spring on leks in the West. Photo by Tracie Fernandez.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department sage grouse program coordinator Tom Christiansen  explained that Wyoming is home to about 38 percent of the world’s sage-grouse.

“I look at thousands of sage-grouse every year and have worked with them for over 30 years,” he said. “I have never seen a leucistic sage grouse in person.”

Although the department doesn’t officially count grouse populations, Christiansen estimates Wyoming “likely has a breeding population (prior to chicks hatching) of over 150,000 (Greater) sage grouse.”

Grouse in Wyoming

Ornithologist and emeritus professor of biology at the Albany campus of the State University of New York, Kenneth Able, said sage-grouse populations have been declining across their range, largely due to loss of habitat. There are two species of sage grouse: the Gunnison and the greater. In Wyoming, we have greater sage-grouse, said Able.

Krissy Bird, who received her Ph.D. in the ecology, physiology, behavior and genetics of sage-grouse, said the grouse population shared between Wyoming and Montana is considered the most stable, because the two states have the largest stretches of undisturbed sagebrush habitat.

Leucisim vs. albinism

Albinism, a genetic mutation, is the complete absence of melanin, which in vertebrates presents a white or pale yellow skin and feather color, with red or pink eyes. Also a genetic mutation, Bird said, leucisim “usually results in off-white, beige, tan or yellow colors in birds.”

University of Wyoming Vice President for Research William Gern said he believes this bird is leucistic because, “there is some plumage coloration evident and it has black eyes, clearly the normal coloration of the bird has been diluted, meaning the normal amount of melanin or other coloration molecules are not being manufactured at normal levels.”

Is different better?

“Mate selection in sage grouse is based almost entirely on female choice among males on a lek,” Able said. “This bird could, in theory, produce a high-quality display in terms of sound, dance steps, etc. Of course, visually he is way off the mark and one would guess that would be a huge handicap in winning female mates.”

Able predicts this bird would be at a disadvantage when it comes to mating. “But he is certainly conspicuous and novel,” he said. “Sometimes novelty is attractive in these situations and leucistic birds of many species do get mates and breed successfully.”

University of California Davis biologist Alan Krakauer studies the behavior, ecology and evolution of birds. “We don’t know much about sage grouse breeding behavior under the full moon at night, where this male might steal the show,” he joked, adding on a more serious note, “It’s been hard to study how much a male’s appearance affects his attractiveness to females, so we know more about how his sounds and how much effort he can put in, relate his success (attracting females) on the lek.”

Last year, Krakauer snapped a photo of a female leucistic greater sage-grouse in Wyoming. Christiansen said, “a leucistic female would likely breed just fine, since males are not very selective—often trying to breed with cow pies, but it is unlikely this male will mate.”

Bird said the leucistic mutation is hereditary. “Most color mutations are recessive, which means that when he does mate, the offspring will look normal, but contain the gene for the color mutation,” she said. “That being said, light (colored)  sage-grouse are not going to start popping up everywhere.”

Generally, a color mutation spreads only if it presents a benefit, like camouflage, she explained.

“Birds in the wild that exhibit color mutation generally do not last long because they cannot blend into their environment,” Bird said. “It is odd that one reached adulthood.”

Tracie Fernandez is a freelance writer and photographer based in Meeteetse. Her work is available online at meeteetsecowboycorner.com.

Learn more about sage grouse

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.