Sage Grouse

Wild Bird Profiles-Sage Grouse

On the sagebrush plains of central Wyoming, a basketball-sized male Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) struts onto his stage. The bird’s snow-white ruff around his neck lends him a regal air, and his fan of brown-and-white tail feathers end in perfect points. The bird hunches his wings and walks forward, thrusting his chest out and inflating two yellow air sacs concealed within his white ruff. The air sacs bounce and deflate, emitting a peculiar and long-carrying drumming noise, ending in a sharp knock. The whole call sounds like a cartoon version of a bouncing ball, or a dripping faucet. And sage grouse females love it.

Sage grouse are known for their unique breeding system. Males assemble themselves into competitive groups called leks, in which they take up traditional positions and defend their right to breed by performing their elaborate courtship rituals every morning and evening for several hours during the breeding season. Leks are often used by the same birds for decades. Females choose one male to mate with, and only a few males will be deemed impressive enough overall. The males who don’t make the cut lose out on the chance to breed that season.

Sage grouse are indelibly tied to the sagebrush ecosystem. The birds feed on its leaves and buds, and use the bushes to conceal their nests. Females lay between 6 and 13 olive-colored eggs in a nest on the ground. Males play no role in incubating or brooding the chicks, who hatch after approximately 25 days. The chicks are precocial, meaning that they are covered in downy feathers and are able to stand and keep up with their mother only hours after hatching.

Sage grouse are listed as “Near-threatened” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Once occupying parts of 15 western states and Canadian provinces in North America, the birds’ population has declined because of widespread habitat loss, and the sage grouse is no longer found in British Columbia, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arizona, or New Mexico. The birds have been pushed out of their historical range by land developers and oil companies who purchase land to build developments and construct oil infrastructure.

The grouse is at the center of a national controversy involving its listing on the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Dozens of nonprofit groups have supported the listing of the species in order to guarantee its protection in the future, but forward progress has been limited by the U.S. government. In 2007, a first review of the bird’s conservation status by the deputy secretary of Fish and Wildlife and Parks resulted in it not being recommended for listing, but after an internal investigation, the decision was overturned. A second review was conducted in 2010, and the bird was placed on a waiting list of sorts. The decision reversed the first review and acknowledged that the sage grouse was in danger of becoming excinct in the future.

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