Birdwatching: Sage Grouse

Sage grouse are famous for being show-offs with their flashy mating rituals.
By Budd Titlow
January 2014

The mating rituals of the sage grouse feature a furious dance-off between rival males.
Photo courtesy Lyons Press
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Taken from the birding adventures of professional wildlife biologist and photographer Budd Titlow, Bird Brains (Lyons Press, 2013) looks at the antics, behaviors, and funny idiosyncrasies of wild birds. Each entry is another tale pulled from hours of birdwatching, where the personality of the various species of birds are on full display. Notorious show-offs, Sage Grouse are the subject of this passage, excerpted from Section 4, "Rocky Mountain Ramblings."

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Bird Brains.

Sage Grouse — Happy Hour on the High Plains

Sometimes Mother Nature provides a perfect microcosm of human life.

Many years ago, I was invited to observe an annual ritual that had all the elements of happy hour at your favorite neighborhood bar. Totally full of themselves, all the males were strutting around in tight circles with their hairless chests puffed out. As they walked, they repeatedly made burping and belching sounds while aggressively posturing toward any other males that came too close to their domains. Meanwhile, all of the females skittered demurely in, out, around, and through all of the absurdly displaying males — acting as if the showboats didn’t exist.

Rather than watching patrons in a dark, after-work bar, I was driving along a Colorado high mountain sagebrush prairie at sunrise next to a “lek,” which is, appropriately enough, the Swedish word for “play.” And the clientele I was observing were chicken-sized wild birds known as sage grouse.

The largest grouse in North America, sage grouse live on the high plains of the American West — at elevations of four thousand to nine thousand feet — including populations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nevada, Utah, eastern California, and western Colorado.

Like many wildlife mating rituals, the “dancing” of the male sage grouse around a lek is all about influencing female choice. Leks are circular open areas in dense stands of sagebrush where sage grouse have been performing every February through April for eons. Here, male sage grouse spend their time puffing out their large colorful breast sacs and proudly displaying their sharply pointed tail feathers while aggressively defending their territories — leaping high in the air with feet and spurs fully extended and striking out at their nearest competitors for feminine attention. While the female sage grouse pretend that they don’t notice, in the end, only the males with the showiest exhibitions — typically less than 5 percent of those trying — mate with all the females. After a few hours, the losing males skulk off to recoup their grouse-hood in hopes of faring better when the next day’s dances begin.

Because they tend to be such show-offs, sage grouse are the subject of many tales — both tall and otherwise — told far and wide in the high plateaus of their Rocky Mountain homeland. Many western riders swear that sage grouse sit hidden in their sagebrush hollows secretly plotting the precise moment to burst up with wings beating wildly askew in front of horses galloping across the open range. The result of this supposed comic plotting is of course that the horses rear up, violently tossing their hooves and manes wildly and summarily flinging their riders — derrieres first — into the nearest clumps of sagebrush.

Want to know more about birdwatching? Check out Budd Titlow’s further Birding Adventures.


Excerpted with permission from Bird Brains: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, by Budd Titlow, published by Lyons Press © 2012. Buy this book from our store: Bird Brains.


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