Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Sage Grouse Mating Ritual: View It While There's Still Time

              Pure pageantry in motion—that’s my description for the Sage Grouse’s annual mating ritual, and male grouse provide both the percussion and the costumes for this stunning April spectacle.  As the male struts and inflates his air sacs a low, barely audible “whoomp, whoomp” can be heard, like the slow steady beating on a tom tom.  The bird then flashes his tail feathers, a striking display of yellow-tipped, black and brown plumage. 

Male Sage Grouse about to inflate his air sacs
and serenade us with his drum solo.

Mr. Sage Grouse sports a beautiful white fur collar.

            Early on a spring morning Tim and I joined a Division of Wildlife Resources specialist and several other people in an open sagebrush meadow near Price, Utah.  Through our spotting scopes we observed 20 males and one hen on the lek, or “a patch of ground used by the males for communal display during the breeding season”.  
           The beauty of these grouse and the elegance of the performance unfolding in front of us were mesmerizing.  So much so that for the next several years in mid-April we arose at 5:30 a.m. to spend an hour or two in the presence of these resplendent game birds. 

Males assemble on the lek with hopes of attracting a mate.

Goodbye Mr. Grouse: the yellow tips on his tail feathers are barely visible—
but we could discern them through the spotting scope.

         100 years ago over 16 million sage grouse could be seen on leks throughout the west.  Today that number is down to 200,000 and dropping rapidly.  Unfortunately for the sage grouse oil and gas production, agriculture, and human habitation is exploding on the low, flat sagebrush meadows the grouse need for reproducing.  It’s likely that the Sage Grouse will not make it through this century.  I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed one of wildlife’s most captivating shows—the sage grouse mating ritual.    
           This grand display may still be observed in remaining scattered sagebrush meadows throughout the intermountain west (see map below).  

Tim looks for sage grouse on a low-lying sagebrush meadow.

Map courtesy: Dr. M. Schroeder, Washington Department of Wildlife.  Taken from US Department of Agriculture (USDA) website.
         For information on Sage Grouse mating areas, contact the state Divisions of Wildlife in the regions shown on the map above.
         Are you interested in helping to protect the Sage Grouse?  Please visit this website:  http://www.voiceforthewild.org/general/sage_grouse_protection.html


  1. Rita . . . a most captivating show for certain! You and Tim are indeed fortunate to have witnessed this.

    So much is learned from reading your posts, especially things related to the Western part of the U.S.

    Thank you for posting this. It was another very interesting read, courtesy of your Blog!


  2. Thanks for your comments. I'm happy to oblige your curiosity and interest in the western US, John.
    And I hope to continue writing posts that are educational and/or interesting. There's so much to see and learn about out there!

  3. 20 males and 1 hen? Wow, reverse that, and you've summed up dating in Los Angeles!

    Seriously, though, what amazing images you brought back from your early-morning trip to the sagebrush meadows! Thank you for sharing these and the (sad) information about the dwindling sage grouse population. Perhaps in this case information will help prevent too many more incursions into their territory.

    Great post!

    1. Hey Vickie,

      Sorry to hear about the dating scene in LA!

      Seriously, though, I sincerely hope that people will come together and designate areas where this stunningly beautiful bird may survive, enabling the species to continue its courtship display well into the next century.

  4. I have seen the dance of the Sage Grouse on NatGeo or PBS and find your descriptions both colorful and apt. Thanks!

  5. Thank you for your comments. I appreciate the feedback!