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Fascinating courtship rituals of the sharp-tailed grouse

Sharptail grouse "dancing" south of Willard, MT early morning on April 4, 2008. Flickr photo by Montana Natural Resource Conservation Service 1 / 2
Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek2 / 2

Living where I do, I only observe one of Minnesota's four species of native grouse — ruffed grouse. The other three native grouse species, which occupy habitats a fairly short distance from my home, are the greater prairie chicken, spruce grouse, and the sharp-tailed grouse, also called sharptails, sharpies, or the even shorter version, "sharps."

I hold a special affinity for the latter species, sharp-tailed grouse. Over the years I've spent time in various ground blinds observing their fascinating courtship rituals on sharp-tailed grouse dancing grounds, or leks as these areas are commonly called. And early last month I enjoyed a remarkable encounter with dozens of sharptails in Kittson County, the northwestern-most county in Minnesota.

While deer hunting in an open, brushland area of a state wildlife management area, I flushed three sharptails from a clump of willow. Prior to that I saw grouse tracks in the snow that I thought were perhaps ruffed grouse, but no, they were sharpie tracks. Moments later following the initial flush of the three birds, another covey erupted from another nearby clump of brush. And then another group flushed, followed by another, and yet another.

I must've looked like a spinning top out there as I spun around in my tracks gawking at the flushing sharptails. And before it was all over, I counted some 30 cackling birds flying across the open landscape to reassemble together somewhere else and resume their morning foraging undisturbed.

Indeed, 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 are 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 here, 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 open land and brushland to agriculture or forest has created unsuitable conditions for sharptails, which consequently has led to the birds' population decline in some areas.

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 15 to 20 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 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.

Sharp-tailed grouse are exceptional, native grouse with very specific habitat needs. Like our other prairie grouse, the greater prairie chicken, sharp-tailed grouse require open landscapes for their survival.

Thankfully, plentiful brushland habitat complexes exist right here in northwestern Minnesota for this important species of grouse to thrive in, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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