On a recent early morning trip to Lake of the Woods County, I traveled north from Waskish on Highway 72 and then west on county highways 1, 3, and 2 to eventually reach parts of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area, Beltrami Island State Forest and other scattered public and private lands south of the City of Williams.
This part of Minnesota — from Shooks to Baudette and most everything east and west — is mostly wild lands replete with wildlife.
Along a stretch of county highway on my way to the Williams area, a large flock of sharp-tailed grouse, possibly numbering upwards of 75 or more birds, flew over the highway about treetop height.
The birds were on their way to a landing spot somewhere in the middle of a farm field as I craned my neck to see them all descending, some birds with outstretched, rigid wings gliding to the earth. “What a treat,” I thought. Sharp-tailed grouse are a special bird.
Sharptails, as they are also called, are birds of open grassland and brush country. Suitable habitat exists primarily in northwestern, east central, and parts of northeastern Minnesota. At one time this species of grouse was 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.
To illustrate the peril of sharptails in some parts of Minnesota, one needs to look no further than to the east-central zone population. This population of grouse no longer sustains a limited hunting season due to decreasing habitat that has led to a steady decrease in sharptail numbers. While sharp-tailed grouse still exist in this part of the state, the DNR closed the east-central zone hunting season beginning this year.
But sharptails are still here, with some areas of the state showing slight increases in numbers of birds. The northwest population is doing well and still provides plenty of hunting opportunities on the expansive brushland and open landscapes of this area of Minnesota.
Habitat projects to improve sharp-tailed grouse brushland habitat are conducted annually by natural resource agencies, conservation organizations, and private citizens throughout sharptail range.
Sharptails are a little larger than the more common, forest-dwelling ruffed grouse. Sharpies weigh in at around two to three pounds and are about 15 to 20 inches long from beak to tail. Their cryptic plumage makes them almost invisible within their grass and brush habitats, especially if they crouch low in short grasses.
The male’s bright yellow eyebrows and brilliant lavender air-sacs located on the throat 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 during the males’ annual courtship mating ritual, the birds disperse from the dancing grounds and hens begin laying and incubating clutches of eggs not far from the lek.
About 10 to 15 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. Thankfully plenty of good sharptail habitat continues to be available in our great state. With annual habitat and population management for this native species of bird and other open landscape dependent species of wildlife, sharp-tailed grouse will continue to thrive, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.