Blane Klemek: Sharptailed grouse — once the most plentiful game bird in MN
Over a dozen years ago when I took my two young kids on a simple little sharp-tailed grouse hunt along an old fence line adjacent to a grassy field, my then five-year old daughter asked while we walked, “Dad, what does a grouse look like?” I had forgotten that important lesson, so, we stopped for a moment to talk about the bird.
“A sharp-tailed grouse is a chicken-like bird about the size of a duck and is brownish and is usually with other grouse,” I replied.
“Are those grouse?” asked my daughter pointing to a flock of white-throated sparrows.
“Nope, grouse are a lot bigger. Keep your eyes open sweetie.”
So, we continued our hunt for about a half-mile — the length of an 80-acre field — came to the end, turned around, and headed back to the truck without flushing or seeing one single grouse. But the kids and I had a good time.
We discovered deer beds along the way and big ancient boulders — glacial erratics, I explained — that had long ago been deposited by glaciers and then years later drug to the edge of the fields and left within the old fence line by some farmer who was undoubtedly relieved to rid his sod of the giant rocks. But they were now playthings. I watched as the kids jumped from rock to rock like little mountain goats.
Though we never saw a sharp-tailed grouse that day, our outing didn’t disappoint me. The kids were taken hunting and hunting they did go. Perhaps to their benefit, however, they knew not of tales of old — the stories of our fathers and grandfathers stepping behind barns to witness flocks of prairie chickens and “sharpies” or “sharptails”, as sharp-tailed grouse are sometimes called, erupting from nearby cover. Or of settlers’ accounts of wagon wheels dripping in yolk from the smashed eggs of wild fowl as ox carts or horse-drawn wagons lumbered through springtime prairies.
Sharp-tailed grouse are birds of open grassland and brush country. Suitable habitat exists primarily in northwestern, east central, and northeastern Minnesota. At one time sharptails were the most popular and plentiful upland game bird in the state. However, since the advent of modern agriculture, fire suppression, and encroachment of trees onto preferred open landscape habitat, sharp-tailed grouse numbers are greatly reduced today.
But populations do exist, with most areas that harbor sharptails in the state showing stable populations. Furthermore, efforts to improve habitat is underway on an annual basis by numerous resource agencies, conservation organizations, and private citizens where prime sharptail habitat still remains.
The habitat management tools most often employed to restore, protect, and enhance habitat for this open landscape dependent species of bird, as well as other grassland and brushland dependent wildlife, involve such activities as acquisition of key parcels, enrollment into conservation programs such as the conservation reserve and wetland reserve programs, prescribed burning, mowing and haying, grazing, and brushland and tree removal, to name just some.
Who can ever forget their first encounter with dancing sharp-tailed grouse? I know I won’t. Each spring sharpies gather in large groups on dancing grounds or “leks” where males perform courtship dances to attract mates. During the spring of 1997 while assisting in a waterfowl nesting study in North Dakota, I heard from a half-mile away the clucks, coos, and cackling of dancing grouse. Looking through my binoculars I found the birds on a distant prairie hilltop in a grazed area near numerous wetlands.
I noticed that near the fence line where the birds were courting a large boulder sat upslope from a wetland basin. Sneaking to that wetland, I belly-crawled uphill some fifty yards, directly behind the boulder, to lay witness to that grand spectacle. What a treat indeed.
For several minutes I peeked from behind the rock and observed over 20 birds, most of which were dancing males vibrating the earth with rapidly stamping feet, heads down with wings extended and looking and sounding like windup toys. Some were fighting, all were vocalizing, some were locked in stare-downs, and others were loitering females — observing, acting as sentinels, and perhaps searching for that perfect male. After a while, I slowly stood and watched the birds flush and fly to the safety of woody cover a few hundred yards away.
Anyone given the opportunity should try and experience this annual event. Populations of sharp-tailed grouse can be found throughout areas near Crookston and in northwestern Minnesota, as well as parcels in Norman, Clearwater, and Beltrami counties. Beginning in March through May, sharp-tailed grouse will gather in small to fairly large groups to display, dance, fight, and breed within their lek dancing grounds.
These leks, so vitally important, can be used year in and year out, providing conditions don’t deteriorate from overgrown brush or become destroyed because of development or agriculture. After mating, females will begin nesting in April and will lay about a dozen eggs. Hatching occurs in about a month.
While circumstances may never return where sharp-tailed grouse are as numerous as they once were, there is increased awareness and appreciation for this uniquely adaptive and mobile native species of grouse. With luck and a lot of committed and hard work from conservation-minded landowners, wildlife managers, and conservation groups, perhaps more sightings of Minnesota’s sharptails will be the norm as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)