Did You Know?
Old grass – what remains after a growing season is good for sage grouse and rangeland health. The tall dried grass serves as hiding cover for nesting hens and chicks – reducing predation. As the grasses become part of the soil cover, they reduce evaporation caused by heating of soil and captures moisture that is stored and then available to new plants.
Sage Grouse Habitat- Complex and Large
Sage grouse need large, unfragmented landscapes with sagebrush, as well as tall native bunchgrasses, wildflowers and other forbs, and wet meadows, too. Biologists call the sage grouse an “umbrella species.” By conserving the mosaic of habitats that this bird needs out in the sagebrush, many kinds of birds and animals also benefit – from pygmy rabbits and sage sparrows to mule deer and pronghorn.Sage grouse may look like birds with simple habitat needs. After all, they’re named for the plant that sustains them most—sagebrush. On closer look their life cycles reveal much more complexity. That helps explain why their numbers have slipped so drastically from millions in pre-settlement days to about 200,000 today. In some cases, habitats are gone – plowed under, or developed. In others, habitats are missing some of the key components.
A Habitat for Every Season
Spring – leks and nesting habitat go together
The famed courtship dance of groups of male sage grouse takes place on leks that are close to potential nesting spots. A lek is the sage grouse version of a dance hall in the plains - a fairly small open area surrounded by sagebrush. The word lek comes from the Swedish "to play."
A lek might be an old lakebed, a low sagebrush flat with excellent visibility, a ridgetop with little vegetation, even a landing strip, road, cropland or burned area. Males may return to the same traditional lek site year after year, and generation after generation. But the birds are also opportunistic, and will start a new lek if conditions are right.
The key lies in proximity to nesting habitat. Sage grouse hens look for sagebrush that’s typically from 29 to 80 cm high (1 to 3 feet high). They scrape out a hollow for a nest under the tallest sagebrush within a stand. The more hidden the nests are the better chance of the chicks surviving. The birds also favor sagebrush with tall and dense grasses, too - one more barrier to predators like ravens and coyotes.
Once the chicks hatch, hens raise their broods in nearby upland sagebrush. The early brood-rearing habitats are more open with a mix of sagebrush, grasses and forbs. The best habitats have a rich diversity of plants with many forbs and insects. A study in Oregon found sage grouse chicks ate 34 genera of forbs and 41 families of invertebrates. The chicks particularly favor ants and beetles.
Summer – raising chicks
As the chicks grow in the summer, their sagebrush habitats start to dry out. The broods look for wetter sites in June and July. The hens and chicks may show up in a variety of habitats- small burned areas within the sagebrush, wet meadows, farmlands and irrigated lands near sagebrush.
Fall- slowly heading toward winter ranges
From late August to December most sage grouse are meandering toward their winter range – places with less snow and plentiful sagebrush for food and cover. Most birds have left their summer ranges by October. En route, the birds take advantage of a variety of sagebrush grassland habitats.
Winter- sagebrush is the key
Sage grouse in winter must find sagebrush to survive – switching to a sagebrush leaf diet entirely. The birds move to areas with sagebrush that covers approximately 10 to 40 percent of the range. Where snow is a factor, it’s important that sagebrush be tall enough for the plants to be accessible. Shrubs also offer shelter from storms and frigid temperatures.