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May 4, 2012

Spring is the season for Sage Grouse to strut!!

Photo courtesy of:  Montana Audubon

Early May is the ideal time to view the mystical and spectacular dawn displays of male Greater Sage-Grouse at their breeding leks. 

The Greater Sage-Grouse is North America's largest native grouse species and is a candidate for federal listing as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Leks are open clearings in the surrounding sagebrush, often on a ridge or knoll. It is believed that many of these courtship grounds have been used for centuries, hence the appropriateness of the strange but often-used term"ancestral lek" to describe these sites.

The Greater Sage-Grouse is about the size of a turkey and has a very noticeable black belly and long, pointy tail feathers. The male also has a ruffed, almost flabby-looking white breast, which puffs up to two enormous yellowish sacs during the courtship ritual. It is the quick inflating and deflating of these air sacs that produces a unique drumming sound that fills the air as males gather to strut. 

Photo courtesy of:  Montana Audubon
 The noise, which sounds like a drawn-out burbling as if someone is gulping underwater, is often the first thing to be noticed in the predawn darkness. Well before the morning light breaks the eastern horizon, as many as fifty Sage Grouse males will have left their night roosts to begin their loud mating ritual.  

Battles ensue, like most such contests in the wild, a battle between dominant male or males earning breeding rights.  The dominant males generally take their places at the center of the lek, with weaker ones farther from the center-a means, it is thought, of ensuring that the most precious genes will not be snared by an opportunistic coyote.

Morning after morning the males will return to the same site where, with territory staked out, they can go about the pressing business of attracting hens. In groups ranging from a half-dozen to well over fifty, males will raise their tail feathers into spiky fans, ruffle their wings, strut and bob and then, with chest puffed up beyond what would seem to be the bursting point, begin a quick series of pops-a display that is no doubt alluded to in many Native American dances where a costume is worn that replicates the fanned out tail feathers of the Greater Sage Grouse. 

Hens, clearly impressed, descend on the lek, allowing the male into whose territory they enter to breed them; they almost invariably move to the most dominant male. It is estimated, in fact, that this central male will mate with about three-fourths of the hens that enter the lek. 

If you know where to locate a Sage Grouse lek before sun-up, and if the wind isn't too fierce, and if cold weather and the prospect of sitting still for hours does not discourage you, then it is possible to witness one of the most bizarre and captivating displays of nature that exists.

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