Its soft immensity is deceiving. It is an inhospitable environment: oppressively hot in the summer, deep snows cover it in the winter. But sage grouse call this place home, and regardless of how unfriendly it is to passing humans, the birds thrive here.
The sage grouse is the largest grouse in North America and the second-largest wildfowl behind the wild turkey. At a maximum of eight pounds, the bird can provide a lot of meat for the hungry. Sage grouse helped feed the Lewis and Clark expedition along the Snake River in October 1805. William Clark specifically ordered his men onto the plains adjacent to the river to kill sage grouse.
Clark's journal reads:
"The fish being out of season and dieing in great numbers in the river,
we did not think it proper to use them. Sent out Hunter to shute the
Prairie Cock, a large fowl which I have only seen on this river, several
of which I have killed. They are the size of a small turkey. One I killed
on the water's edge today measured from the beak to the end of the toe,
2 feet 6 & 3/4 inches. From the extremities of its wings 3 feet 6 inches;
the tale feathers 13 inches long. They feed on grasshoppers and the
seed of the wild plant which is peculiar to this river and the upper parts
of the Missouri. When they fly they make a cackling noise . . . the flesh
of the cock of the plains is dark, and only tolerable in point of flavor. I do
not think it as good as the [ruffed] grouse. It is invariably found in the plains."
Though some might disagree about the bird's table qualities, Clark astutely recognized the bird's habitat and its affinity for sagebrush--it is indeed a bird of the high plains. And sage grouse habitat can be summed up in a word -- sagebrush. To say that the shrub is important to the grouse is a gross understatement. The grouse eat it, they hide in it, they nest in it, and they perform their annual, age-old courtship displays near it. Without sagebrush they cannot exist.
Openings in the sagebrush furnish the habitat, or leks, where the males carry out their extravagant courtship displays, arguably the most spectacular of all North American grouse. Along about late March or early April, the cock birds turn their attention to procreation. In the early morning darkness, often before 4:00 a.m., the cock birds waddle onto the lek and begin strutting. With spiked tail feathers radiating in an arc, he inflates his breast showing white feathers and bare yellow skin. He takes a few quick steps forward, stops abruptly, and vigorously shakes his breast like a water-filled balloon, emitting an indistinct croak. At the height of the breeding season, the cock birds repeat the ritual about 15 times per minute. Competing suitors that get too close to defended territory might get jostled with another's wing. Unlike some of the other grouses, sage grouse won't jump in the air to strike with their feet.
The courting display seems more for show between the males than to attract willing hens. The hens linger nearby during the display, but don't show much interest. At the center of the lek, the dominant males will take up station, and the younger, inexperienced males stand farther away. And it is the older, dominant males that will breed with about three-fourths of the hens.
After breeding, the hens scratch a shallow nest in the soil, under the shelter of sagebrush, lining it with small sticks and feathers. There she will lay up to 16 buff to sage-colored eggs, that will hatch in about three weeks. The hens alone care for the chicks. As soon as the downy feathers are dry, the chicks run about looking for food, primarily insects. While still very young, they sleep under the hen's wings at night. In about two weeks, the chicks are able to fly short distances. Aside from coyotes, raptors and badgers, late-spring snow storms or incessant cold rains are enemies to the young chicks. Early summer droughts can also leave the young birds without food.
By autumn, yearling birds, hens, and cocks all come together in small flocks for their trek to the low-elevation wintering grounds. The birds migrate up to 100 miles, to and from winter habitat. Research shows that banded birds return to the same lek year after year, with some cock birds defending the very same territory within the lek.
When Clark penned the first-ever description of the sage grouse, the grouse occurred virtually everywhere sagebrush was found, roughly in 15 western states. But overgrazing of livestock and attempts at domesticating the prairies were hard on the birds. By the 1930s, the grouse was only hunted in four states and by 1937, only Montana maintained a hunting season. Closed seasons remained until the mid-1950s when numbers took a turn upward. Today, sage grouse occur sporadically from northern New Mexico to southern Saskatchewan and from Washington to the California-Nevada border, and are hunted in nine states.
Sage grouse seasons traditionally open in late September. Though some hunters say a dog isn't necessary to hunt the grouse, it's probably a good idea to have a retriever. The bird's dusky-gray tones allow it to blend into the shrubbery it so closely allies itself with. Knock a bird down without a dog and you could have trouble finding it.
Older sage grouse get cagey on approach and have a tendency to run a bit, then flush at a distance, maybe. It's the younger birds that may sit tight and flush at your boot. And it's also the younger birds that are favored for the pot. Older birds may be tough and often have a strong sage flavor. A six-pound bird, taking to the air, can make some racket. Sage grouse have a noisy, lumbering flight at take-off but fly fast once they get squared away on course.
Craig Springer holds a bachelor's and master's degree in fisheries and wildlife ecology from Hocking College, New Mexico State University, and the University of Arizona. He's about to receive a master's in English from the University of New Mexico where he's concentrated on the rhetoric of science and nature.