Saturday, August 30, 2014

Really Weird Animals: Greater Sage Grouse

The Greater Sage Grouse is found in the grasslands and plains of the western United States and southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada.  Their range used to cover 13 western states and 3 Canadian provinces.  Currently, it is only found in half their historic range.

A male Greater Sage Grouse (photo: The wikipedia files)

The Greater Sage Grouse is the largest grouse in North America.  Grouse are chicken-like game birds ranging in height from 12 to 37 inches and from less than 1 to 14 pounds.  They have feathers covering their feet and toes in winter to protect them when walking on snow.  The Greater Sage Grouse ranges in height from 22 to 29.5 inches and from 2 to 7 pounds.  Adults have long pointed tail feathers.  The males have a small yellow patch above their eyes, grayish brown plumage, with white around their neck and breast.
What makes the Greater Sage Grouse unique is their courtship display and complex mating rituals.  The adult males also possess two yellow sacs on their chest, which are inflated with air and produce interesting sounds.  Some sound like popping sounds similar to the uncorking of a bottle.  Males will also strut and dance and fan their spiky tails out.

Please click here to watch a video of a male performing a strut display. These birds return to the same breeding grounds every year.  The places where males come together and engage in competitive displays in hopes of enticing viewing females are called leks.  Dozens of males will be on display but only one or two will be chosen by the females for mating.
After mating, the females leave and find suitable nesting grounds.  They will nest on the ground, preferably under sagebrush for cover.  They lay between 6 and 10 eggs, which hatch after 25-29 days.  The chicks are precocial, which means their eyes are open and they are covered in downy feathers when they hatch.  They are able to walk soon after hatching.  Sage grouse spend 60 percent of their day eating insects, leaves, buds, flowers, and fruit.  By five weeks old the chicks are strong flyers.  Come winter, they may flock together or disperse.

The Greater Sage Grouse is listed as a near threatened species due to human development, conversion of land for farming, oil and gas development, and climate change.  The only other species of sage grouse, called the Gunnison Sage Grouse, is on the endangered species list for the same reasons.

Submitted by Sara Oliver, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist

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