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by Stan Tekiela
June 3, 2019
I am no stranger to getting up pre-dawn, stumbling around in the dark and finding remote locations, far, far away 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).
Sage Grouse are 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 and 9-thousand-foot elevation. 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 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 towards 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 swishy and popping noises.
The dancing grounds, 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 hundred 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 asses the males. Just what the females are looking for in the male is not clear. To us, all the males look exactly the same. Their feathers appear the same, their dancing appears to be the same and their calling is identical. But the hens zero in on the best males.
About three-quarters of all the females that visit the lek will mate with just one or two of the males. The females often gather around the dominate 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. Copulations 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 6-8 eggs in a shallow depression under the cover of a sage bush. Upwards of 50 percent of all Sage Grouse nests are predated. 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 presences of females. She can try a second time. But if the predation occurs later in the nesting cycle she will have to wait and try again next year.
Sage Grouse only live for 4 or 5 years so each nesting season is critically important. Usually females only get one or two chances to mate in their lifetimes. Populations of this bird have dropped dramatically over the past 100 years and in 2015 was considered for listing as an endangered species.
I spent 3 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 / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted vis his web page at www.naturesmart.com.
The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.
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