Sharp-tailed grouse keep dancing

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Every spring, Sharp-tailed Grouse males gather at leks on the prairie and dance to attract females. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published April 27, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Sharp-tail trip seeks out the other grouse.”

2014 Update: Habitat Extension Bulletins are all available online now, http://wgfd.wyo.gov/web2011/wildlife-1000616.aspx.

By Barb Gorges

As the driver of the last car in the caravan, I expected whatever the attraction was that had caused the lead driver, Bill Gerhart, to pull over to the side of the gravel road would be even with or ahead of him.

The goal of our Audubon chapter field trip was finding sharp-tailed grouse north of Hillsdale. In the dimness before sunrise this calm, mid-April morning, I searched the pasture ahead for any movement on the lek.

Leks are dancing grounds, where males come back every year to congregate, display and compete for females. Females hang out at the periphery. When I finally caught a flash of movement, it was even with my car. How nice for my passengers who had never seen sharp-tails before.

Mention grouse around here lately and most people think immediately of the sage grouse. Technically known as “Greater Sage-Grouse,” it is in the news as a declining species in the way of oil and gas drilling.

The image of the sage grouse male in full display appears in wildlife publications regularly. He has two large, yellow-skinned, inflated air sacs embedded in a drooping white neck ruff and a fan of spikey tail feathers.

The sharp-tailed male, on the other hand, has just one spikey point to his tail, and no white ruff, though he does have small purple air sacs on either side of his neck.

Because sharp-tails don’t make the news as often as their relatives, I asked Kathleen Erwin, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Cheyenne, about them.

Though their population has declined, they are not in as much trouble as sage grouse, she said, except for the Columbian sharp-tail, a sub-species that prefers mountain shrub habitat found in south-central Wyoming and other western states. It is being petitioned for addition to the list of threatened or endangered species.

As so often is the case, the changes to native habitat are a problem. However, sharp-tails will adapt to using cropland more so than sage grouse. We saw two fly over fresh green shoots of winter wheat on our field trip.

Bill, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist as well as one of our trip leaders, said the Conservation Reserve Program started in 1985 encourages the reseeding of cropland with grass species for erosion control and provides a good base for sharp-tails to rebound.

Drought is a factor right now, Kathleen said. The grouse need enough vegetation to hide their eggs from predators. Their nests are mere scrapes on the ground. Drought also cuts down on the number of insects available to feed the young right after hatching, before they convert to an adult diet of mainly seeds, buds and leaves.

The development of native prairie habitat also brings new predator species that the birds aren’t used to, said Kathleen. Converting prairie to houses brings domestic cats and more skunks.

And then there’s the competition. Ring-necked pheasants brought in by game bird farms will push sharp-tails out, said Kathleen. Later on our trip we had an excellent view of two cocks of this Asian species fighting on the side of the road.

Sharp-tails are a resident species in southeastern Wyoming as well as grasslands extending north into Canada, which means you should be able to see them any time of year, but they are a lot easier to find in spring on leks.

The six or seven sharp-tails we found were completely oblivious to us as we watched from our vehicles.

The males held their pointy tails erect, stretched their stubby wings horizontally and with head down, stepped rapidly in little circles or advanced on their rivals or retreated. The white underside of their tails was the only contrast to the dry grass landscape or to the rest of their feathers that are also the color of dry grass.

With our windows open we heard tail feathers rattling and the weird cooing sound made when males deflate their air sacs. When the orange globe of sun slipped over the uncluttered line of the horizon, all the photographers were happy.

This particular morning it was we who left first, rather than the birds, to search out other leks. Often, the shadow of a passing hawk sends all grouse airborne. While a hawk in flight is often favorably compared to a fighter jet, flying grouse are the epitome of short-winged, big-bellied bombers. They prefer to flap and glide, and never far from the ground.

In late April, we are now part way through the pageant of spring migration. The snow geese have come and gone and the warblers and shorebirds are just now showing up. If we miss the ducks, we’ll see most of them again in fall migration. But the grouse show is mostly finished. Many people view sage and sharp-tail leks every year and some, wildlife biologists as well as volunteers, perform surveys.

Every year we hope they find good news. Otherwise, it could forecast the future demise of something more important than just another roadside attraction.

For a copy of Habitat Extension Bulletin 25, “Habitat Needs and Development for Sharp-tailed Grouse,” call Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 777-4600.