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IUCN Conservation Status: Near Threatened
Each spring, at dawn, the sagebrush country of western North America fills with a strange burbling sound and an even stranger sight. Dozens of male Greater Sage-Grouse puff their chests and fan their starburst tails like avant-garde turkeys. They inflate bulbous yellow air sacs and thrust with their heads to produce weird pops and whistles. The rest of the year these birds melt away into the great sagebrush plains that are their only home. Habitat fragmentation and development have caused severe declines for this spectacular bird.
The Greater Sage-Grouse is a large grouse with a chubby, round body, small head, and long tail. Males change shape dramatically when they display, becoming almost spherical as they puff up their chest, droop their wings, and fan their tail into a starburst.
Sage-grouse are mottled gray-brown with a black belly. Males have a black head and throat. The breast has a fluffy white ruff that, during displays, surrounds a pair of inflatable, yellow air sacs. Females have a dusky cheek patch emphasized by white markings behind the eye.
For most of the year sage-grouse are inconspicuous, browsing on sagebrush and other plants at ground level. In March to May, males perform elaborate strutting displays on patches of bare ground called leks. Females gather to evaluate the males and choose which ones to mate with.
Sage-grouse are emblematic of the sagebrush steppe of the intermountain West, which is their only habitat. They are widespread across the sagebrush plains but are sensitive to disturbance. In early spring they gather on patches of open ground known as leks, where males display to females.
Displaying Greater Sage-Grouse are nearly unmistakable, but females and non-displaying males can be trickier. The Gunnison Sage-Grouse is very similar but does not overlap in range; it is restricted to just a few areas of Colorado and Utah. Sharp-tailed Grouse typically live in grasslands rather than sagebrush. They are paler overall, with a pointed, white-edged tail, and they lack the Greater Sage-Grouse’s black belly. Dusky Grouse and Sooty Grouse live in forested and semiforested habitats but generally not in unbroken sagebrush. They are smaller and darker, with shorter tails and without the black belly. Ring-necked Pheasants are smaller, tan-buff overall, and also lack the black belly.
The best way to see Greater Sage-Grouse is to visit a lek before dawn during the late winter and early spring (March to May). Leks can be very sensitive to disturbance, and some leks are closed to the public. Others are well prepared for public viewing and may feature viewing blinds or guided tours. The Sage Grouse Initiative has a page including directions and guidelines for minimizing disturbance while viewing sage-grouse leks.
The Sound of Feathers: A student uses sound and high-speed video to discover how sage-grouse make a “swish”. Story in BirdScope.