Blane Klemek: Sharptails are a delight in the outdoors and on the table
I recently enjoyed a savory meal of ruffed grouse and sharp-tailed grouse breasts, legs, and thighs served alongside mounds of mouth-watering wild rice. The two species of grouse, as well as the wild rice, were all harvested from Clearwater and Hubbard counties by yours truly.
As I sat and dined on the Minnesota bounty, I couldn’t help but feel quietly content that the wild food I ate was home grown and gratifyingly healthy. And while enjoying my meal, I also remembered the individual grouse hunts; the lone sharptail flush from a prairie grassland as my Chesapeake closed in . . . about Ol’Ruff and their thunderous flushes from dense woodland thickets . . . and about harvesting a canoe-full of wild rice — a hot day in September of poling and knocking tall stalks of lake rice and watching as grains of manoomin, the good berry, rained down upon while ducks, coots, and sora rails flushed everywhere we riced.
My meal also reminded me of a recent observation of a flock of sharptails that a friend and I enjoyed seeing on an open field near the small northwestern Minnesota town of Gatzke, southeast of Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area. Both of us saw the “sharps” at the same time flush from the hard-packed snow, and both of us remarked that it wouldn’t be long when Minnesota’s sharp-tailed grouse will begin gathering on traditional leks to dance once again.
Indeed, each spring across parts of northern Minnesota an avian dance is performed by a very special, native species of bird. The dance is like no other performance out there. And while it is only the males that dance, the seemingly uninvolved females are very mindful of the rich auditory and visual subtleties performed by each of the participants. It may seem like chaos to we human observers, yet it is anything but disorder. Mother Nature carefully choreographed the whole affair long ago.
In the springtime sharp-tailed grouse gather in large groups on dancing grounds or “leks” where males perform courtship dances to attract mates. With pointed tails held erect, clicking tail feathers, and wings extended laterally while stamping their feet, the male birds look and act like wind-up toys as they vocalize an amazing repertoire of assorted clucks, cackles, and coos. As many as two dozen or more males and females will gather on traditional leks if the grounds are undisturbed from the year before.
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 “sharpies”, as they area also called, were the most popular and plentiful upland game bird in the state. However, because of modern agriculture, fire suppression, and encroachment of trees onto preferred open landscape-brushland habitats, sharp-tailed grouse numbers in many areas are greatly reduced.
But sharptail populations do exist, with some areas in the state showing slight increases in numbers of birds, while other areas have stable populations and others decreasing. Projects to improve sharp-tailed grouse brushland habitat are conducted annually by natural resource agencies, conservation organizations, and private citizens throughout sharptail range.
American Indians familiar with sharp-tailed grouse behavior and their preferred habitat called the grouse “firebird”. Sharpies preference for burned-over areas is well known, as is their penchant for open grass and brushland areas that undergo periodic burns or other natural or human-caused disturbances. Conversion of openland and brushland to agriculture or forest has created unsuitable conditions for sharptails, which consequently has led to the birds’ population decline in some areas. In the 1940s, hunters annually harvested over 100,000 sharpies each fall in Minnesota. Today the annual harvest ranges from 5,000 to 10,000 birds. Nonetheless, these beautiful native prairie grouse seem to be holding their own on the landscape.
Sharptails are a little larger than the more common, woods loving ruffed grouse. Sharpies weigh in at around two to three pounds and are about fifteen to twenty inches long from beak to tail. Its plumage blends in wonderfully to its surroundings of grass and brush. Mottled browns and grays makes them practically invisible, especially if they crouch low in short grasses.
The male’s bright yellow eyebrows and brilliant lavender air-sacs located on their throats are colorful contrasts to their otherwise drab, though cryptic, plumage. The yellow and lavender always surprises me when I observe the birds dancing and strutting about their leks. Viewed through the optics of binoculars or spotting scopes, the nuances of plumage and features are fascinating to look at.
After hens have selected the best displaying male to mate with, the birds disperse from the dancing grounds and hens begin laying and incubating clutches of eggs not far from the lek. About ten to fifteen eggs are laid in nests hidden on the ground in grass or beneath brush. The precocial chicks feed mostly on insects throughout the summer. As adults they will also feed on a variety of weed seeds, grains, and buds from woody shrubs and trees.
Minnesota’s sharp-tailed grouse are special birds with specific habitat needs. Like our other prairie grouse, the prairie chicken, sharptails require open landscapes to survive and flourish in. Thankfully this environment exists in Minnesota and, along with continued management and appreciation for this important and native species of bird, sharp-tailed grouse will forever delight us as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)