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Sharp-Tail Grouse: Big Bird of the Great Plains at Cabela's

Sharp-Tail Grouse: Big Bird of the Great Plains

Author: Craig Springer

Steely gray-blue clouds hang in the west like a partially raised, tattered curtain as a storm approaches. Late-day sunshine streaks through small breaks in the clouds, bathing the gamma and Sacaton on select hillsides in a golden glow.

Sharp-Tail Grouse.  Photo by Ed Bry

Steely gray-blue clouds hang in the west like a partially raised, tattered curtain as a storm approaches. Late-day sunshine streaks through small breaks in the clouds, bathing the gamma and Sacaton on select hillsides in a golden glow.

Crisp lightening bolts jolt the ground far off and the boisterous thunder, laboring to catch up, rolls over the hills a few moments later.

A setter labors in the covers at the bottom of a draw. In the cool stillness that precedes a storm, she gets wind of birds. The boisterous whir of wings and guttural cluck suspends relative quiet as plains sharp-tail grouse erupt from tall grasses and sparse hawthorns. First, two big birds are up. Then a single. Your dog told you, "c'mon, get ready." But still you are taken off guard-so surprised you are that it's only the single you have a chance at. You empty one barrel and the dog marks the fall. Then two others rise from the cover over your shoulder, nearly behind you. Swinging hard, barrel number two punches a hole in the sky behind two birds quickly making distance between you. One bird from a covey of five, that's not too bad considering that in some parts of its native range, the plains sharptails have retreated in the face of advancing domestication.

The prairie hills roll for miles and miles. You can't help but feel small in the immense grasslands called the Great Plains. This unique landscape has some animals uniquely adapted to life on the prairie. The plains sharp-tail grouse is among them.

For countless centuries, an annual ritual has taken place on the open country every spring-the courtship of plains sharp-tail grouse. Flocks of sharptails split apart into smaller groups, hens in one group, males in another. Before sunrise each day in April and May, the 50 or more males arrive on the display grounds vying for territory and approval of females. To win favor, the males try intimidating each other by voice and pompous gesture, and sometimes confrontation-pecking, feather pulling, or getting thumped with a wing. Each morning it starts with one bird running overland as fast as he can go on the display ground, or lek. Soon others follow suit. With his beak to the ground and his pin-tail sticking straight up over his back, he runs backwards. Purple air sacs expanded, they strut in circles making sudden rushes forward rapidly stamping the ground with both feet. They make cooing calls and click their tails. With eyes closed they stand face to face, and then like someone turns a switch, they mill about as though they were never engaged in competition. It's eccentric to say the least, but the hens apparently like it.

When it comes to nesting, plains sharptails don't do much in the way of nest building. The hen lines a four-inch depression, eight-inches across chiefly with grasses and some feathers. It's not elaborate but nests are well hidden. The domicile is placed at the base of bunch grasses or under a shrub. She lays a baker's dozen of tawney-colored eggs speckled with lavender and reddish-brown and incubates them for about three weeks. Only the female incubates the eggs and she leaves the nest to feed every day after the sun warms the air, returning about noon. On about day 21, the hen begins turning the eggs constantly in response to the embryo peeps in the shell.

At hatching, the downy chicks can follow mom and are able to feed themselves. Their diet consists of seeds, berries, beetles and grasshoppers. In ten days they clumsily fly short distances, and in twelve weeks completely resemble their parents. Of the 13 original eggs, about six or seven young make it to autumn, having avoided falling prey to crafty coyotes on the ground and fast falcons from above. Once surviving to adulthood, the plains sharptail may live to see its eighth birthday. As autumn approaches, plains sharptails of all ages gather more and more into flocks that will stay together all winter.

The plains sharptail formerly inhabited Kansas and Oklahoma, but range conversion to grazing and farming changed that. The subspecies now lives in Nebraska, north to central Alberta. Farming isn't necessarily the bane of this bird. Grains often partly sustain it well into the winter. During the day these birds may frequent the edges of farmer's fields. You might also catch groups roosting in large cottonwoods along streams, or in pines where the woods meet the prairies. They won't roost there overnight though, instead preferring to hunker down low behind a windbreak.

The plains sharp-tail grouse appears the most stable of the six sharptail subspecies. Though they are extremely popular among upland gunners, hunting appears to matter little in suppressing populations. The annual harvest in North Dakota for example, ranged from 45,000 to 143,000 from 1945 to 1970.

Sharptail hunters vary on the need for a dog. Mark Wilson, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has hunted sharptails for years in Nebraska.

"I used to think a dog was unnecessary for sharptail hunting. But I wouldn't walk across the street to hunt without a dog anymore," Wilson asserted. The birds often flush fairly far ahead and pointing dogs or any dogs for that matter actually helps you very little if it doesn't work close. Wilson hunts behind a Gordon setter.

But on real windy days Wilson has another technique for bagging birds. He walks with the wind carrying a light, open choke for a fast shot at the crest of a hill where sharptails hunker behind. A grouse with a 20-mph tailwind gets out of range quick, making those long shots very difficult, even with long-barreled, tightly choked magnums, which incidentally, are also heavy to carry. That's important, considering you might walk 15 or 20 miles a day hunting these prairie denizens.