Curious Nature: Sage grouse come out for spring dance
Vail, CO Colorado
Dawn is the best time to boogie if you’re a greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). In spring, as many as 70 of the iconic male grouse will gather at each dance floor (called a “lek”) before sunrise to shake their tail feathers in hopes of attracting female mates. The birds can appear up to twice their normal size when air bladders on their chests expand, puffing up their collars of white feathers and making alarming popping sounds. Tails fan out, adding to the spectacle, and the birds whoop it up, jockeying for position among other males. The dance is in full swing when the females cut in, being very picky when choosing a partner. When they find the “Travolta” or “Usher” of the bunch, the top male can be very popular, mating with as much as 80 percent of the females! Only a few of the males displaying end up doing most of the breeding, carrying their genes on to future generations.
Several Native American plains tribes dance their version of the grouse dance in spring, honoring the bird and celebrating the renewal and rebirth of spring. The pattern of their dance is similar to the grouse, spiraling and elaborate. Lek is a Swedish term for “mating sport” and refers to both the dance and the gathering place. Other “lekking” animals include walrus, some fruit bats, rainforest birds called manikins and a few types of antelope.
A couple of hours after it begins, the dance is complete and the grouse go about the normal business of life. Females will usually lay six to eight eggs that hatch in about 26 days, and chicks will be able to leave the nest soon after hatching. The young eat lots of insects in the summer as they grow and then into winter, their diets consist almost exclusively of sage leaves. In Colorado, we have a second species of sage grouse, the Gunnison, which is about one-third smaller and only found south of the Colorado River.
Healthy sage brush habitat is essential for the sage grouse. It provides food in the form of seeds and leaves, and mother grouse raise their young in the grasses under large sage bushes. It also provides cover from predators and winter weather. Grouse are year-round residents, and their numbers indicate how well other species in the area are doing (“indicator” species). Development, grazing, fire suppression, weeds and West Nile virus all are threats to the grouse, and its numbers have declined from more than 2 million when Lewis and Clark first described them in 1805 to around 150,000 today. Federal officials note that their numbers warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, but they’re in line behind those more critically in danger of extinction (there are more than 250 species that are candidates for listing).
Recently implemented, the Sage Grouse Initiative is a voluntary program under the Natural Resource Conservation Service trying to protect the species and the sage-brush lands they inhabit. It targets areas where the grouse live in high numbers, focusing on improving sage cover, reducing obstacles that frequently kill birds (such as barbed-wire fences), preserving land and providing incentives for participation. Protecting these birds and the sage habitat keeps the ecosystem in better balance, reducing insects and giving predators a good source of prey. There are 94 types of birds, 87 mammals, 58 reptiles and 30 varieties of sage brush that occupy healthy sage lands, so a little protection goes a long way.
If you’re lucky enough to see the dance of the sage grouse this spring, you’ll easily recognize the connection they have to the natural cycles and rotations of the land, as Native Americans did. And perhaps you can do your own little grouse dance to celebrate spring in the mountains.
Emerald Gustowt is a volunteer for Walking Mountains, with a background in avian rehabilitation. She also enjoys shaking her tail feathers now and then.
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