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Sharp-tailed Grouse

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

July 8, 2024

The rights of spring come in many different forms, shapes, colors, and patterns. But the end goal is always exactly the same—reproduction. In nature, everything can be boiled down to one of two things, finding food to survive and mating for reproduction. It’s as simple as that.

So, this spring I have been out capturing images of a couple different species of grouse. In my last column I wrote about the Greater Prairie Chicken, a species of bird that was once widespread and numbered in the millions and is now barely hanging on and extinct in much of its former range. This time I am looking at the Sharp-tailed Grouse.

Once again, I found myself getting up at 4 am, packing up what I will need for the morning and heading out to my old truck in the dark. A short drive later, I arrived at the location where I would find the second grouse species of the spring. When I opened my truck door, I could immediately hear several male Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) calling in the dark.

This time I packed up two long lenses, a 600 mm prime lens and a 100-500 mm zoom lens. With these large and heavy lenses, I definitely needed a tripod to hold them up while capturing images and video. I also grabbed my small single person photo blind which has a chair built into it. With this blind, I can pop it up and get inside in less than one minute. This is critical to causing minimal disturbance to the birds.

After a short walk, I arrived at the location. I needed to assess approximately where the sun would be rising so I could place my chair blind in the best location with the sun at my back. This will provide the best light on the dancing grouse when the sun rises. Working quickly, I set up the chair blind and set up the tripod and mounted the 600 mm lens and camera.

 I covered up and waited in the dark for the birds to arrive and the sun to rise. Within one minute I could hear and start to see the first of the Sharp-tailed Grouse walking and flying up to the dancing ground. The dancing ground, also called a lek, is typically made up of short grass vegetation. A lek is a communal area in which two or more males will gather and perform a courtship display. This isn’t limited to grouse species. Many species of birds, insects and mammals use a lekking performance area when it comes to mating. The grouse are just the most well-known species for using a lek.

By the way, the work lek, is commonly used in biology. The origin of the word is believed to come from Swedish (lekstalle) and loosely translates to mating game, or to frolic, fight or play and was first used as a noun in 1867. This perfectly describes what is going on at these traditional displaying grounds.

A lek is used for many years, often decades, but the longevity of a lek is completely dependent upon the vegetation that is growing at the lek. When woody shrubs or trees such as aspen move into a lek, the birds often abandon it in favor of a new lek with short grass vegetation only.

On this particular morning, I counted 25 male Sharp-tailed Grouse that came to display on the lek. The males would pair up and face off. Within the lek are micro territories with the most dominant male at the center and satellite males surrounding the dominant one. The least dominant males are on the outer edge of the circle.

The most complex and fascinating of the males display is the “tail rattling” or dancing display. Each male leans forward and lifts a set of feathers on its neck to expose a pinkish to purple patch of skin. It cocks its tail feathers upwards, with the undertail feathers, called tail coverts, exposed and for maximum visibility. The male then starts a series of rapid short steps, about 18 to 20 per second, causing him to move forward in a curving or arching direction. At the same time, the male vibrates its tail, producing a clicking or rattling sound with an associated scraping noise created by scraping overlapping tail feathers. It sounds like a baby rattle. The best part of this is, all the males perform this stepping and tail rattling display at the same time, so what you see is what looks like a bunch of windup toy birds spinning in circles and at the same time it sounds like a snake pit filled with rattle snakes.

For the next 3 hours I sat in my blind capturing images and video of these amazing birds, all along marveling at the intricacies of their behaviors while capturing the strength and beauty of the amazing Sharp-tailed Grouse. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author/naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels extensively to capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on www.instagram.com and www.facebook.com. He can be contacted via his website 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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