I am no stranger to getting up pre-dawn, stumbling around in the dark and finding remote locations that I have never been to before. So, it was “just another day at the office” when I recently went to Wyoming and Colorado to visit an old friend, the Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus).
The sage grouse is a large and unique bird whose entire life is directly connected to the sage brush habitat of the American West. They are found in only 11 western states from North Dakota to California. They inhabit the sage brush areas of the high desert. Often, they are found between 8,000- and 9,000-foot elevations. The habitat is dominated by sage, which is a woody plant with small gray-green leaves that remain on the plant all year. These plants can live for upwards of 150 years and are the main food source for the sage grouse.
Each spring, male sage grouse gather in small open areas which are free of sage bushes. The openings are created by salty sediments in the soils that inhibit the growth of the sage plant. Originally, there was approximately 500,000 square miles of sage brush across the western states. Today, less than half of this unique habitat exists, which is putting a squeeze on the population of the Greater Sage Grouse.
Each March and April, when the last vestiges of winter are giving way to warmer spring weather, the male sage grouse travels from miles around to gather in groups to show off for the females. At this time of year, the male is in peak physical shape, having put on weight over winter. Testosterone surges in the male grouse’s body, which causes his large neck pouches to swell. These pouches can hold up to a gallon of air and are critical in the males displaying. They also become aggressive toward other males. Each male can have up to a dozen or more fights with the neighboring males per day. Males fan their spiky tail feathers and strut about making a lot of swishing and popping noises.
The dancing ground, where the males display for the females, is called a lek. The lek is often just a couple acres in size. These areas are traditional and have been used continuously for upwards of a 100 years. This is the place where females can find the males for mating each spring.
Upwards of 50 or 60 males gather on the lek to display for the females. Each male has fought for a specific spot on the lek. The older, more dominant males presumably get the best spots. The females come from miles around to look and assess the males. Just what the females are looking for in the male is not clear. To us humans, all the males look exactly the same. Their feathers appear the same, their dancing appears to be the same and their calling is identical. Somehow, the hens zero in on the best males.
About three-quarters of the females that visit the lek will mate with just one or two males. The females often gather around the dominant males and watch them closely. At some point, the female will solicit a copulation from the male by drooping her wings and laying flat, chest down, right in front of him. Copulation takes only one or two seconds.
After mating, the female wonders off, up to 10 miles away from the lek, to build a nest and start laying eggs. She will lay six-eight eggs in a shallow depression under the cover of a sage bush. Upwards of 50 percent of all sage grouse nests are ruined because of predation. If this happens early in the season, the female can return to the lek, where the males continue to dance and fight, even without the presence of females. If the predation occurs later in the nesting cycle, she will have to wait and try again next year.
Sage grouse only live four to five years, so each nesting season is critically important. Usually females only get one or two chances to mate in their lifetime. Populations of this bird have dropped dramatically over the past 100 years. In 2015, sage grouse were considered for listing as an endangered species.
I spent three amazing mornings studying the behaviors of these remarkable birds. I was also fortunate enough to capture some incredible images and video detailing the mating behavior. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is an author, Eden Prairie city naturalist and wildlife photographer who lives in Victoria and travels the United States to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on Facebook and Twitter. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.