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Gunnison Sage-Grouse


IUCN Conservation Status: Endangered

Gunnison Sage-Grouse Photo

Gunnison Sage-Grouse are similar to, but rarer than, their close relative the Greater Sage-Grouse. They have the same spectacular courtship, where males gather on lekking grounds to puff themselves up, fan their tails into a starburst, and use bizarre pouches in their chests to make loud burbling noises. Females gather in flocks to decide which males to mate with, then raise the young entirely on their own. Gunnison Sage-Grouse are restricted to western Colorado and eastern Utah; they number about 5,000 and are federally threatened.

At a GlanceHelp

Both Sexes
18.1–22 in
46–56 cm
34.9–85.9 oz
990–2435 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Ring-necked Pheasant; smaller than a Wild Turkey.
Other Names
  • Tétras du Gunnison (French)

Cool Facts

  • Greater Sage-Grouse has several subspecies, but the Gunnison Sage-Grouse was never one of them; it was always assumed that the two were the same species. It wasn’t until 2000 that the Gunnison Sage-Grouse was recognized as its own species, making it the first new bird species described in the United States since the 19th century. Differences in size, coloring, plume size and shape, display behavior, and genetics indicate that this species is distinct from the Greater Sage-Grouse.
  • Sage-grouse have a specialized stomach that digests the tough sage-brush, their main food.
  • Over the harsh winter, sage-grouse actually manage to gain weight and strength in preparation for the breeding season by feeding on the leaves of sagebrush. They get water from feeding on snow.



Gunnison Sage-Grouse have a very restricted distribution on the sagebrush steppe of western North America and are usually found at elevations of 7,000 feet or higher. They use several types of sagebrush habitat at different times of the year, as well as areas with native grasses and forbs, and riparian habitats. They generally select moist sites for foraging when available. In the winter, at elevations of 5,900–9,000 feet, they stick to locations with substantial cover of big sagebrush, black sagebrush, and low sagebrush and use areas with deciduous shrubs such as Gambel oak, serviceberry, snowberry, and antelope bitterbrush, as well as areas invaded by pinyon and juniper. They usually nest in areas with relatively dense cover from big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), although they also use areas with rabbitbrush, greasewood, and grassy areas. Leks are located in clear areas such as broad ridgetops, grassy swales, dry lakebeds, and sometimes recently burned areas. Adult hens lead their growing chicks to areas with good forage, including irrigated pastures, wet meadows, and alfalfa fields, in addition to sagebrush.



Gunnison Sage-Grouse eat leaves, buds, flowers, forbs, and insects (beetles, grasshoppers, and ants). Leaves (primarily of sagebrush) dominate the diet throughout most of the year and are the principal food from November into April. Forbs and insects are the main food for young chicks, which cannot digest sagebrush for several weeks after hatching. Dandelions and other forbs are important for females as they prepare for laying. In fragmented habitats, Gunnison Sage-Grouse forage and roost in cultivated fields of alfalfa, wheat, and beans.


Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–10 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
2.1–2.2 in
5.4–5.6 cm
Egg Width
1.5–1.5 in
3.7–3.9 cm
Incubation Period
25–29 days
Nestling Period
1 days
Egg Description
Variable shades of olive-buff to pale greenish, with fine, darker markings.
Condition at Hatching
The downy, well-camouflaged chicks are precocial, able to feed themselves within minutes of hatching. Typically able to fly weakly after 10 days, and strongly after about 5 weeks.
Nest Description

Females make bowl-shaped nests scraped into the soft soil and lined with leaves, grasses and forbs, small twigs, and feathers that the female plucks from her breast. The cup interior is about 8–9 inches across and averages 2 inches deep.

Nest Placement


Females do all the nest-building, incubation, and raising of the chicks without any help from males. They place their nests on the ground, usually in the shade under a sagebrush shrub and sometimes under tufts of grass within dense patches of shrubs.


Ground Forager

Gunnison Sage-Grouse (along with their more widespread relative the Greater Sage-Grouse) offer one of the best examples of the breeding system known as lekking. Males gather by the dozens, or even hundreds, in an opening in the sage to perform complex, highly choreographed courtship displays. Females visit these leks to size up the displays and choose their mates—typically all the females mate with just a few of the males at the lek. This puts intense pressure on males’ displaying abilities if they are to have any chance of passing along their genes. After mating, males have no further contact with the female or the young.


status via IUCN


Gunnison Sage-Grouse has declined greatly from presettlement estimates. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of only 4,600 birds, with 100% living in the U.S. The species rates a 20 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and is both a Tri-National Concern species, and a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species. Gunnison Sage-Grouse was listed as federally threatened in November 2014, and is on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List, which includes bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. The species is also listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. About 85% of the species are part of a single population in the Gunnison Basin; the remainder are distributed among six other populations in western Colorado and adjacent Utah. According to the listing decision, the main threats to the species are habitat decline from human disturbance, small population size and structure, drought, climate change, and disease. Specific threats include certain ecologically harmful grazing practices, fences, invasive plants, changes to fire regimes, encroachment of pinyon and juniper on sage lands, extraction of natural resources, water development, and disturbance from recreation.


Range Map Help

Gunnison Sage-Grouse Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings


Resident (nonmigratory) to short-distance migrant, often moving relatively short distances (20 miles or so) between wintering and nesting areas. Females may lead their chicks to summer feeding areas in higher elevations or wet areas.

Find This Bird

The best way to see Gunnison Sage-Grouse is at a lek site—but be aware that sage-grouse are extremely sensitive to disturbance. Because of this species’ low numbers, only one lek is accessible to the public as of 2015. It’s the Wuanita Lek about 19 miles east of Gunnison, Colorado. Western State Colorado University hosts a page about the lek, its current viewing conditions, and behavior and precautions for lek viewing.



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