Saturday, April 4, 2015

Dawn in Sage Grouse Country...

Picture this: As dawn rises, the sharp scent of sage mingles with the strange popping sounds of a gang of strutting sage grouse cocks. Inflating and deflating the two yellow chest sacs the cocks pirouette about the lek hoping to impress the hens lurking in the sage nearby. That only one or two dominant cocks ever get the chance to actually mate seems lost in the unfolding drama.

Starting usually sometime in March, lek activity peaks in mid April but goes on sometimes into early May. I have seen individual cocks strutting much later doubtless more just blowing off steam than any real idea of attracting a mate.

Unlike other gallinaceous birds--other grouse species, turkey, chickens and such--hens only mate once. Egg laying is delayed until later in mid May. Thirty days later chicks hatch. Precocious the brood leaves the nest right after hatching and, unlike other upland bird species, come the September hunting season very rarely do we find birds unable to fly well enough to keep up to mama.

Sage grouse and sagebrush are inseparable; take away sage, big unbroken tracts of sagebrush and grass and Poof! the big grouse are gone. Fragmentation is the biggest reason sage grouse populations are generally in decline. Lacking a grinding gizzard the diet is simple and straight-forward, sagebrush leaves, buds and berries (100% in winter), leafy greens and, especially early on the chicks gobble insects--ants are big--to get the protein fix necessary to kick start their growth hormones. Dissecting dozens of crops over the past 20 or so seasons I have yet to find more than one or two insects. And while I'm sure sage is sampled anytime until after mid-October most of the crops are stuffed with leafy greens.

As fall deepens toward early winter families and bachelor males come together in loosely scattered flocks on wintering grounds whose numbers are often mind-boggling. During winter workouts it is not uncommon for my dogs to point several scattered bunches of 25, 50 or more in a couple hour loop.  

To watch a short video of strutting cocks visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7X9UIdKoF8

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