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Sharp-tailed Grouse Life History



Sharp-tailed Grouse occupy a very large range, from northern prairies into boreal bogs. Wherever it is found, areas of dense shrubs provide shelter and food as well as nest sites. On rare occasions, Sharp-tailed Grouse nest in crop stubble, but normally they nest in shrubby areas that have vegetation at least a foot high. Key shrubs across their range include rose, cherry, serviceberry, snowberry, sagebrush, and hawthorn, most of which provide both food and shelter. Particularly in the southern part of the range, grasslands are vital for foraging birds, especially in summer, when chicks require abundant insects. Native grasses that are associated with Sharp-tailed Grouse include bluestems, bluegrass, wheatgrass, and needle grass. Croplands are most heavily used in fall and winter, when other foods can be scarce, and Sharp-tailed Grouse tend to use woodland habitats (aspen, birch, conifers) and sheltered, shrubby streamside areas in winter more than at other times, as they provide greater protection from the elements. For its springtime communal displays (leks), this species requires open, elevated areas.

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Like other prairie-chicken species, Sharp-tailed Grouse eat mostly grasses, forbs, buds, seeds, flowers, fruits, acorns, cultivated grain, and other plant matter, along with insects when available. They ingest grit (tiny stones) to aid in grinding food. Most foraging is done on the ground, but they also readily perch in shrubs and trees to access buds and fruit. Specific plant foods include tamarack, white birch, dwarf birch, aspen, rose, sumac, chokecherry, goldenrod, snowberry, Russian olive, willow, maple, clover, dandelion, hawthorn, serviceberry, buffalo berry, Oregon grape, goatsbeard, gromwell, smartweed, yarrow, dock, sagebrush buttercup, smartweed, hawkweed, and numerous grasses. Among cultivated crops, they eat sunflower, corn, wheat, and oats. In summer, they take grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, midges, ants, and moths.

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Nest Placement


Females select the nest site in grassland with brushy cover, usually less than a mile from the lek, in a place with vegetation at least 3 inches high.

Nest Description

The female builds a nest that is an oval-shaped depression incorporating nearby plants—grasses, sedges, ferns, mosses, forbs, and leaves, sometimes lined with breast feathers. Nests are about 7 inches wide and 2.8 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:9-12 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:1.6-1.8 in (4.2-4.5 cm)
Egg Width:1.2-1.3 in (3.1-3.4 cm)
Incubation Period:21-23 days
Nestling Period:7-10 days
Condition at Hatching:Downy and able to follow mother.
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Ground Forager

Sharp-tailed Grouse are active, animated birds, and even where hunted they can seem curious and tame around humans and vehicles. They feed on the ground much in the manner of chickens, by pecking and gleaning, and they readily alight in trees or shrubs to survey an area or to eat. They fly strongly and regularly go substantial distances between foraging and roosting areas. Wingbeats are strong and interspersed with frequent glides. In spring, males gather in a small area called a lek or dancing ground, where they defend small territories and together perform their dance display to attract females. Males stand with wings held out and cupped downward, extend the neck, expand their superciliary combs (colored skin above the eyes), inflate air sacs in the neck, make a cooing call, stamp their feet rapidly, and cock the tail upward. This dance is followed by a resting period called the freeze; males often face each other, dancing and freezing in perfect synchronized fashion. Males also battle each other when territories are crossed. Only a few males, mostly older males, are accepted by females for mating; these males appear to be the most prolific dancers and usually have territories near the center of the dancing ground. No pair bond is formed in this polygynous (multiple-female) mating system, and males have no role in selecting nest sites or rearing young. After the breeding season, grouse gather in flocks in autumn.

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Low Concern

Although Sharp-tailed Grouse populations are at a small fraction of their historical levels, their numbers have increased by 19% since 1970, according to Partners in Flight estimates. The group estimates a global breeding population of 750,000 and rates the species a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating it is a species of low conservation concern. Although pesticides and lek disturbance have been identified as having negative impacts on this species, the fragmentation, degradation, and loss of their habitats have had the worst impacts. In the 1980s and 1990s, agricultural lands planted with grasses and forbs under the Conservation Reserve Program in the United States had positive effects, increasing both nesting and brood-rearing habitat.

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Connelly, J. W., M. W. Gratson and K. P. Reese. (1998). Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. (2014). The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (2014b). Available from

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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