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Sharp-tailed grouse put on a show for spring breeding privileges

Posted On
Aug 03, 2015
Animals near Yellowstone

By Bill Schiess

A high wind and snow traveling sideways had quieted most of the early birds in the moments before dawn.

Still, there was a hooting sound coming from the tall, dead grass and scattered sagebrush. It wasn’t an owl; it was from male Columbia sharp-tailed grouse as they moved onto the annual breeding ground to dance and fight.

On a high ridge east of Rexburg, the hooting was quickly replaced by clucking, the stomping of feet and the rasping of tail feathers as the males danced around the lek.

The first thing observers noticed was the “popcorn” tails, as the males held their tails high during an elaborate dance.

“That is awesome,” said Jim Owens, of Seattle, as he watched the grouse dance within 20 feet of the truck. “It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.”

As the sun creeps toward the horizon, females started coming onto the lek, causing the males to increase their activities. At the same time, raptors became abundant, actively hunting the ridges. Northern harriers are one of the most dangerous predators on displaying sharp-tails. Several times each morning the hunters will flush the upland game birds only to see them either fly or run back to the lek.

By midmorning, the hens quit visiting the lek, and the males melted back into the heavy vegetation to rest and eat until the next morning.

The population of the Columbia sharp-tailed grouse has increased gradually over the past 10 years after most of these small grouse disappeared from many of their traditional leks during the 1970s and 1980s.

Sharptails once numbered in the millions. Early settlers said they would “block out the sun” when they were flushed.

Due to the loss and degradation of habitat, their numbers have dropped and many traditional breeding grounds in eastern Idaho are birdless. This spring a search of the traditional leks along the Teton/Madison County’s borders showed less than half of them have birds on them.

With the Conservation Reserve Program, marginal agriculture lands have created hundreds of thousands of acres of grasslands used by these birds. The CRP land and lands owned by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game allows sagebrush and mixed shrubs, such as bitterbrush and chokecherry, to increase cover and food for the fast-flying birds.

As sharptail numbers increase, new leks are formed. These are usually found on open grassy knolls where the males gather each spring to dance and sing their way into the hearts of the females.

One of the strangest sounds and motions of the dance is the rubbing of the two center tail feathers together, making a rasping sound. This is done with the wings spread out while stomping the ground with their feet while raising their brilliant yellow eye brows and filling their purple air sacks on the side of their necks.

With most of the leks on private ground, permission must be obtained to witness this event.

But occasionally east of Rexburg, east of the landfill in Bonneville County and in Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area, a few of the leks are viewable from the roads over the high grasslands.

It is a sight that will not soon be forgotten once it is seen by those lucky enough to view it.

Orignally printed in the Post Register on Thursday, April 23rd 2015