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Wildlife Finds: Greater Sage-Grouse

Two sage-grouse in a prairie setting.

Photo: Tom Koerner/USFWS, Public Domain via US Fish & Wildlife Service

Icons of the interior Northwest, the sage-grouse are a native bird species that have found ways to survive in the harsh sagebrush plains. They mainly eat the leaves and buds of the sparse vegetation (mostly sagebrush in particular), and usually make their homes and breeding-grounds amid sagebrush plants.

While capable of flying at incredible speeds, the sage-grouse rarely leave the ground, and tend not to venture very far unless gathering for their annual lek each spring. Lekking is a behavior wherein males perform courtship displays for females in a single area. The sage-grouse are among the most profound lekkers in North America, having several physical traits adapted for these displays in particular. Males are equipped with a lung/throat pouch they can inflate with air, allowing them to make an unmistakable variety of loud warbles, chirps, and pops as part of their displays. The females shop around as males put on displays and rival each other for attention; usually a handful of males get chosen by multiple mates for their display while others are not chosen at all.

Sage-grouse make their homes a good distance from each other, and gather yearly to lek. Unfortunately, this means that this species is heavily affected by human activities. As the range of these birds are disturbed by roads, fences, and human activity, gathering for leks (and therefore reproduction as a whole) becomes more difficult.

While not currently listed as endangered or threatened, the populations of this species have declined dramatically over recent decades. They are closely watched by federal and state agencies that manage their natural habitats at this time, and have a presence on several wildlife refuges across the nation, but it's possible that man-made structures will disturb wild populations for many years. If you find sage-grouse in the wild, definitely consider yourself lucky and leave them undisturbed to continue their unique lifestyle in an unforgiving environment.

More information from the Cornell Bird Lab

More from the US Fish & Wildlife Service


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