Did You Know?
While dozens of male sage grouse dance on a lek, all vying for the attention of females, very few of them will mate. They also have no choice in the matter. The females make the selection. In one study in Wyoming, two males performed three-quarters of the mating.
Males on the Lek – Jockeying for the best position
Males displaying on a lek for females are engaging in more than fancy dancing. They’re angling for the best spots on the dance floor and ultimately the highest chance of mating with a female. Mature males defend their territories with vigor - confronting each other in a series of stylized moves. Researchers have named their interactions like dance steps – Face-Past, Parallel, Reversed, and Display. When one male moves, the other male moves – assuring the birds keep their spacing and position— often only a couple feet away from each other.
And it’s not all a ritual. Males will engage in actual fights. They lower their bodies and tails to the ground and smash their wings into each other—sometimes leaping a bit in the air for extra power. They may even grab each other with their bills to try to drag them away. These fights tend to take place early in the display season. Older males are more dominant. The yearling birds tend not to join in on the leks until the peak of the season, and may then be driven out by the experienced males.
Females are not always safe from the fray. While they may be the selectors of a mate, copulating can be a risky business. A male may knock a male off of a female during mating – although the actual disruption rate is fairly low.
Strutting Display - flair plus an iconic sound of the prairies
The expression “strut one’s stuff” could have come straight from watching a sage grouse male in full display mode. A male fans his spiky tail, raises his yellow eyecombs and filoplumes, and struts a few steps forward. At the same time, he inflates a pair of yellowish throat sacs hidden in his white breast feathers that make a loud plop sound that’s most like uncorking a champagne bottle. Males may strut six to ten times a minute for three to four hours per day.
Behaviors Off the Breeding Grounds
Throughout the year, sage grouse are social birds that are found in flocks. In summer, broods of hens and chicks join up together to forage. In winter, large groups of sage grouse may roost together. Depending on the weather, they’ll seek out shade or sun. When not nipping off leaves for food, sage grouse spend time preening, head-scratching, stretching, and dust-bathing.
Their daily routine on a summer day tends to go like this. Start foraging for tasty leaves in the early morning and then loaf for a good part of the day before resuming nipping buds in the afternoon until twilight when it’s time to find a sheltered roost. They may spend 60 percent of their day eating. During mating season, the routine is much altered—waiting to eat until after the daily morning drama on the leks.
Despite their heavy bodies, once in the air sage grouse are strong fliers with recorded speeds up to 78 km/ hour (almost 50 mph) and single flights of up to 10 km (six miles). However, sage grouse prefer to walk. Running is difficult on their short legs. Hiding or flying are their best responses to threats.
Sage grouse, not surprisingly, are tasty targets for predators. From the air, the greatest threats are golden eagles. When the birds soar over grouse on a lek, the displaying ends for the morning. Other raptors also may prey on sage grouse, too, including red-tailed and ferruginous hawks. That’s why grouse avoid trees that offer raptor perches. From the ground, the birds have to watch for coyotes, foxes, and even bobcats occasionally. Nests attract a greater array of predators – like badgers, weasels, ravens and magpies.
Sage grouse try to escape predation by crouching low to the ground, blending in with their surroundings, or hiding under shrubs. They may fly away as well. A hen on a nest will attack ground squirrels to defend her eggs and chicks. She may also perform a distraction display—dragging her wings on the ground to look injured to draw a predator away from the nest, similar to a killdeer’s behavior.