Skip to content

In quest of the Sharp-tailed Grouse


    “…the grouse represents solely a millionth of both the mass or the power of an acre. But subtract the grouse and the entire thing is useless.” — Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac


    Late April on the U.S.-Canada border, pitch-black within the hour earlier than daybreak. Snow comes down sideways, making Minnesota State Freeway 11 out of Baudette nearly invisible from our SUV. We’re following the ghostly lights of one other car; on the wheel is Scott Laudenslager, a supervisory wildlife biologist on the Minnesota Division of Pure Sources (DNR). He’s main us on a wild grouse chase.

    Just a few miles farther alongside, we flip and rattle our manner down a abandoned, ice-and-snow-rutted aspect street that appears to go on perpetually. However that remoteness is how our quarry prefers it. We’re searching for the “hearth grouse,” better-known because the Sharp-tailed Grouse. To Native People of the northern prairies, the Sharp-tailed is pheta silo (Sioux) or ishkode mitchihess (Ojibway) — firebird — for the necessity for hearth to maintain its grassland habitat open.

    Laudenslager skids to a cease. We’re a couple of yards behind him. Doorways silently open, and we’re quickly crunching our manner 100 yards down a slippery path throughout a area, flashlights off. Simply seen at midnight is a small hut, a blind with openings for binoculars and cameras. We enter by a door within the again to seek out slats searching on a small, snow-dusted circle within the area. “We must be very quiet,” whispers Laudenslager, whose DNR workplace in Baudette manages the blind. “That is the dancing floor, or lek, of the Sharp-tailed Grouse.”

    This text was first revealed within the March/April 2023 subject of BirdWatching journal. The photograph reveals three male Sharp-tailed Grouse dancing for a feminine (heart) on a lek in far northern Minnesota.

    Spring 2022 is the primary time since 2019 the Minnesota DNR has opened the blind and allowed guests to look at the present, a results of COVID-19 closure insurance policies. The “disguise,” as some discuss with it, is about 20 minutes south of Baudette and could also be reserved to view the Sharp-tailed lek. It accommodates three individuals, has chairs with cushions, and is about up for pictures. Viewers have the solar at their backs for the most effective photographic situations, in line with Laudenslager, who notes that “the Sharp-tails dance proper in plain sight.”

    As if on cue, smooth noises drift throughout the grassland. It’s nonetheless nearly an hour earlier than dawn, however male grouse have already began promoting for females. They’re making grouse mating music, which scientists name cackling, and can quickly begin flutter-jumping, actions that look precisely like they sound. “Alerts that serve primarily to promote the situation of the dancing floor and of particular males embrace the flutter-jump and cackling calls,” wrote ornithologist Paul Johnsgard in The North American Grouse: Their Biology and Habits. “Each sexes carry out cackling calls. Cackling by females is often carried out as they method the dancing floor, and this stimulates robust responses by the males, particularly flutter-jumping.”

    In flutter-jumping, in line with Johnsgard, “the male jumps into the air a couple of toes, uttering a chilk notice as he takes off, flies a couple of toes ahead, and lands once more.” He’s displaying off for any close by females. However “a lot probably the most complicated and fascinating of the male shows,” observes Johnsgard, “is the ‘tail-rattling’ or dancing show.” Speedy stepping actions — 18 to 19 per second — consequence within the chicken shifting ahead in a curve, one thing like a tiny wind-up aircraft. On the similar time, the male vibrates his tail backward and forward, producing a rattling sound.

    Rattling simply outdoors alerts us that Sharp-tails are certainly performing, even at midnight. Laudenslager estimates that about 18 Sharp-tailed Grouse are mere toes from the blind. The fireplace grouse, discovered.

    In his Life Histories of North American Gallinaceous Birds, Arthur Cleveland Bent quotes one D.G. Elliot, who in 1897 described the dancing. “Within the early spring, within the month of April, when maybe in lots of elements of their habitat in northern areas the snow nonetheless stays upon the bottom, the birds, each men and women, assemble at some favourite place simply as day is breaking, to undergo a efficiency as curious as it’s eccentric.

    “Because the ‘dance’ proceeds,” continues Elliot, “the joy of the birds will increase, they usually twist and switch, leaping over one another of their frenzy. Because the solar will get effectively above the horizon, and evening’s shadows have all been hurried away, the antics of the birds stop, and the grouse scatter searching for meals.” On the Baudette lek, the solar rises, and the birds certainly wander away, pecking on the floor and nibbling on no matter grain and buds they discover.

    Leks are often on small rises in in any other case flat land, as is the case right here. “Leks as show grounds depend on visibility and detectability to be seen by passing females,” write College of Regina’s Brandon Burda and colleagues in a paper on Sharp-tailed Grouse lek habitat suitability revealed in April 2022 within the journal PLOS ONE. “Sharp-tailed Grouse have a tendency to decide on hills because the websites of their leks, however in comparatively flat areas. Males can successfully create a stage to broadcast their shows.”

    Sharp-tailed Grouse
    Male Sharp-tails face off on the snow-covered lek by leaping above and flapping at their rivals. Male grouse combat one another to win the appropriate to mate with females and to defend territories. Often the females solely settle for older males for mating; these males seem like probably the most prolific dancers and often have territories close to the middle of the dancing floor. Picture by Ilya Raskin

    Prairie grouse with out a prairie

    Flocks of Sharp-tailed Grouse had been as soon as so massive, pioneers stated they blocked the solar. However as grasslands and brushlands in northern prairie states disappeared, with them went Sharp-tailed Grouse.

    Native American “circle dances” have their origins in prairie grouse conduct, “and pioneers waded by a sea of grasslands and shrublands feeding on prairie grouse, however neither may have imagined the day when so few would stay,” states Saving Huge Open Areas for the Firebird, a Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse administration plan for 2022-2032. The report was drafted by Jodie Provost and different members of the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society. Provost can also be affiliated with the North American Grouse Partnership, a company that promotes the conservation of grouse and the habitats wanted for his or her survival and replica.

    Conservation of grasslands and shrublands “is urgently wanted on a broad scale,” in line with Saving Huge Open Areas for the Firebird. A 2019 examine of North American chicken populations confirmed a web lack of 2.9 billion birds since 1970; grassland birds, together with prairie grouse, declined probably the most.

    Sharp-tails face comparable threats all through their U.S. and Canadian prairie vary, Provost says. Certainly one of three species within the genus Tympanuchus (the others are the Larger and Lesser Prairie-Chickens), Sharp-tailed Grouse are present in Alaska, a lot of northern and western Canada, and elements of the western and midwestern U.S. The Sharp-tailed Grouse is the provincial chicken of Saskatchewan.

    Pre-European settlement, Sharp-tailed Grouse occupied eight Canadian provinces and 21 U.S. states. The birds then ranged from Alaska south to California and New Mexico and east to Quebec. Following settlement, the Sharp-tailed Grouse was extirpated from California, Kansas, Illinois, Iowa, Nevada, and New Mexico.

    The New Mexico Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus hueyi), for instance, was discovered solely in a portion of northeastern New Mexico and went extinct in 1952. Greater than 40 years later, in 1994, Robert Dickerman of the College of New Mexico and John Hubbard of the New Mexico Division of Recreation and Fish wrote within the journal Western Birds: “Habitats on this mesa nation could also be so degraded that no Sharp-tailed Grouse of any inventory is prone to prosper, a minimum of till important enhancements are made.”

    Now the species inhabits the pine savannas of the japanese higher Midwest throughout to the shortgrass, mid-grass, and shrub steppe prairies of the Nice Plains and Rocky Mountain West. Its most well-liked habitats are savanna-like prairies with grasses dominant, shrubs blended in, and few patches of bushes.

    In Minnesota, the Sharp-tail’s vary is restricted to the northwestern and east-central elements of the state. “Our Sharp-tail inhabitants has declined vastly within the final 50 years,” says Laudenslager. “However managed burning and tree-clearing have helped stop some open brushlands and grasslands from turning into woodlands.”

    The expansive open landscapes wanted by Sharp-tailed Grouse had been a conspicuous function of Minnesota. Based mostly on a pre-settlement vegetation map, states Saving Huge Open Areas for the Firebird, “11.3 million acres, or greater than one-third, of the state’s northern and central forest and transition area had been brushy prairie, oak barrens, jack pine barrens, conifer bogs and swamps, and muskeg.” Small-scale farming and logging created extra Sharp-tail habitat, and huge wildfires such because the Hinckley Hearth of 1894 and Cloquet Hearth of 1918 burned dense woodlands and turned them into open fields and prairies — for a time.

    Based mostly on Nineties land use and canopy data, only one.3 million acres of the northern and central areas of Minnesota had been nonetheless brushland.

    Sharp-tailed Grouse
    A feminine grouse observes her environment on a lek. Females have a small crest and white stripes on the face. When the eggs hatch, hens present all the parental take care of chicks. Picture by Ilya Raskin

    Dangerous information and excellent news for Sharp-tailed Grouse

    To rely Sharp-tailed Grouse in these areas, observers search for males displaying on leks in spring. The 2022 Minnesota common of 12.2 Sharp-tails per lek was just like the long-term common since 1980, primarily based on spring counts carried out by the DNR and different organizations. However a drop within the variety of leks within the state’s east-central area signifies that the inhabitants has fallen considerably in that portion of the vary, states a DNR report.

    “We’ve identified for a while that within the east-central area, massive, open areas of grassland and brushland are altering and changing into much less appropriate,” says Charlotte Roy, the DNR’s grouse biologist. “These birds want roughly 1 to three sq. miles of grassland and brushland, so managing their habitat usually requires cooperation amongst a number of landowners.”

    Over the past 20 years, Minnesota’s east-central area grouse numbers have gone straight down. Lively leks within the area dropped from 67 in 2004 to 18 in 2021. Males per lek fell from 10.4 in 2008 to 7.3 in 2021. The decline led to the closure of the state’s east-central Sharp-tail searching season in 2021.

    Then in 2022, the east-central Sharp-tail inhabitants elevated: 205 Sharp-tailed Grouse had been counted on 21 leks, 55 % greater than the 132 birds counted on 18 leks in 2021. In 2019 on this area, nonetheless, 216 grouse had been counted on 30 leks. The 2022 improve, in line with Roy, “doesn’t signify long-term restoration of the inhabitants.” The variety of leks within the area stays low, and the leks are smaller in variety of birds than these in areas with extra plentiful Sharp-tailed Grouse, such because the northwest a part of the state.

    “The rise within the east-central area ought to be regarded cautiously,” says Roy, “as heat, dry situations throughout spring and summer season 2021, adopted by favorable winter snow roosting situations [grouse keep warm beneath snow drifts in winter], probably resulted in robust nest success, chick survival, and overwinter survival.”

    Within the northwest survey area, the place the blind south of Baudette is positioned, 1,779 Sharp-tails had been counted on 142 leks in spring 2022, with a mean 12.5 grouse per lek. Counts at leks on this area in 2021 and 2022 had been comparable. “Sharp-tailed Grouse seem like secure within the northwest area,” says Roy, “though they could be rising in some elements and declining in others.” For instance, biologists within the Larger Prairie-Hen survey areas (the southern a part of the northwest survey area) reported extra Sharp-tailed Grouse in areas that when held prairie-chickens. Researchers are investigating why.

    In neighboring Wisconsin, the Sharp-tail image is analogous. Bob Hanson of the Wisconsin DNR says that in 2022, the state recorded a 35 % improve within the variety of males in a spring survey in comparison with 2021. Surveys are carried out on three property varieties: DNR-managed properties, non-managed properties, and personal lands.

    “On Wisconsin DNR-managed lands, the 2022 survey documented a 59 % improve, whereas on non-managed property, there was a 50 % decline within the variety of male Sharp-tailed Grouse in comparison with 2021,” states Hanson. “On personal lands surveyed, zero grouse had been detected in comparison with one male noticed in 2021.” Based on a abstract, “it ought to be famous that the present improve in [DNR-managed lands] survey numbers is coming off an all-time low rely in 2021, and survey tendencies nonetheless point out a long-term decline.”

    A male Sharp-tail dances close to a feminine on a lek in Minnesota. Picture by Ilya Raskin

    Challenges forward for the firebird

    Degradation and lack of the expansive habitats Sharp-tails want are largely a results of suppression of wildfires that clear the land of vegetation and an absence of ample prescribed burning. Additionally enjoying a job: conversion of grasslands to croplands; the heavy rains of local weather change; and the decline of small-scale farms and livestock producers and due to this fact lack of small grains, pastures, and hay lands.

    Based on The Sharp-tailed Grouse in Minnesota, a 1997 Minnesota DNR report, “Main Sharp-tail habitat in Minnesota is dominated by grasses, sedges (Carex spp.) and willows (Salix spp.). These habitats are sometimes related to small grain and livestock farming.”

    The checklist of threats appears limitless and contains ailments reminiscent of West Nile virus, which plague small, remoted populations; buildings like fences, wind generators, photo voltaic fields, and powerline corridors that reduce throughout grouse habitat; altering predator populations, such because the growth of the coyote’s vary; and lek interference and nest parasitism by Ring-necked Pheasants.

    To outlive, firebirds should efficiently navigate a gauntlet of risks.

    It’s not all trial by hearth, nonetheless, for Sharp-tailed Grouse. “The excellent news is that chance abounds for landowners and organizations in search of to maintain and recuperate habitat and Sharp-tailed Grouse populations,” in line with Saving Huge Open Areas for the Firebird. Planting cowl crops, rotational grazing, delayed haying, and creating buffer strips can present extra habitat. “Sharp-tailed Grouse can pioneer new appropriate habitats,” states the report, “when supply populations and sufficient connecting habitats exist in proximity.”

    Minnesota has quite a few conservation teams that provide alternatives to help the chicken, in line with the doc. “A extra appropriate, charismatic species than Sharp-tailed Grouse doesn’t exist to encourage ‘saving broad open areas.’”

    Laudenslager agrees. “Sharp-tails have gathered on the lek close to Baudette for a minimum of a dozen years and sure a lot, for much longer. I hope they’ll be there, doing their spring dance, a long time from now.”

    Prairie dancers: The place and when to go to see America’s 5 grassland and sagebrush grouse

    Can prairie grouse and wind generators co-exist?

    This text seems within the March/April 2023 subject of BirdWatching journal. Subscribe

    Learn our publication!

    Join our free e-newsletter to obtain information, pictures of birds, attracting and ID suggestions, and extra delivered to your inbox.

    Signal Up for Free