“…the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.” — Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
Late April on the U.S.-Canada border, pitch-black in the hour before dawn. Snow comes down sideways, making Minnesota State Highway 11 out of Baudette almost invisible from our SUV. We’re following the ghostly lights of another vehicle; at the wheel is Scott Laudenslager, a supervisory wildlife biologist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). He’s leading us on a wild grouse chase.
A few miles farther along, we turn and rattle our way down a deserted, ice-and-snow-rutted side road that seems to go on forever. But that remoteness is how our quarry prefers it. We’re in search of the “fire grouse,” better-known as the Sharp-tailed Grouse. To Native Americans of the northern prairies, the Sharp-tailed is pheta silo (Sioux) or ishkode mitchihess (Ojibway) — firebird — for the need for fire to keep its grassland habitat open.
Laudenslager skids to a stop. We’re a few yards behind him. Doors silently open, and we’re soon crunching our way 100 yards down a slippery trail across a field, flashlights off. Just visible in the dark is a small hut, a blind with openings for binoculars and cameras. We enter through a door in the back to find slats looking out on a small, snow-dusted circle in the field. “We need to be very quiet,” whispers Laudenslager, whose DNR office in Baudette manages the blind. “This is the dancing ground, or lek, of the Sharp-tailed Grouse.”
Spring 2022 is the first time since 2019 the Minnesota DNR has opened the blind and allowed visitors to watch the show, a result of COVID-19 closure policies. The “hide,” as some refer to it, is about 20 minutes south of Baudette and may be reserved to view the Sharp-tailed lek. It accommodates three people, has chairs with cushions, and is set up for photography. Viewers have the sun at their backs for the best photographic conditions, according to Laudenslager, who notes that “the Sharp-tails dance right in plain sight.”
As if on cue, soft noises drift across the grassland. It’s still almost an hour before sunrise, but male grouse have already started advertising for females. They’re making grouse mating music, which scientists call cackling, and will soon start flutter-jumping, movements that look exactly like they sound. “Signals that serve primarily to advertise the location of the dancing ground and of specific males include the flutter-jump and cackling calls,” wrote ornithologist Paul Johnsgard in The North American Grouse: Their Biology and Behavior. “Both sexes perform cackling calls. Cackling by females is usually performed as they approach the dancing ground, and this stimulates strong responses by the males, especially flutter-jumping.”
In flutter-jumping, according to Johnsgard, “the male jumps into the air a few feet, uttering a chilk note as he takes off, flies a few feet forward, and lands again.” He’s showing off for any nearby females. But “much the most complex and interesting of the male displays,” observes Johnsgard, “is the ‘tail-rattling’ or dancing display.” Rapid stepping movements — 18 to 19 per second — result in the bird moving forward in a curve, something like a tiny wind-up plane. At the same time, the male vibrates his tail from side to side, producing a rattling sound.
Rattling just outside alerts us that Sharp-tails are indeed performing, even in the dark. Laudenslager estimates that about 18 Sharp-tailed Grouse are mere feet from the blind. The fire grouse, found.
In his Life Histories of North American Gallinaceous Birds, Arthur Cleveland Bent quotes one D.G. Elliot, who in 1897 described the dancing. “In the early spring, in the month of April, when perhaps in many parts of their habitat in northern regions the snow still remains upon the ground, the birds, both males and females, assemble at some favorite place just as day is breaking, to go through a performance as curious as it is eccentric.
“As the ‘dance’ proceeds,” continues Elliot, “the excitement of the birds increases, and they twist and turn, leaping over each other in their frenzy. As the sun gets well above the horizon, and night’s shadows have all been hurried away, the antics of the birds cease, and the grouse scatter in search of food.” At the Baudette lek, the sun rises, and the birds indeed wander off, pecking at the ground and nibbling on whatever grain and buds they find.
Leks are usually on small rises in otherwise flat land, as is the case here. “Leks as display grounds rely on visibility and detectability to be seen by passing females,” write University of Regina’s Brandon Burda and colleagues in a paper on Sharp-tailed Grouse lek habitat suitability published in April 2022 in the journal PLOS ONE. “Sharp-tailed Grouse tend to choose hills as the sites of their leks, but in relatively flat areas. Males can effectively create a stage to broadcast their displays.”
Prairie grouse without a prairie
Flocks of Sharp-tailed Grouse were once so large, pioneers said they blocked the sun. But as grasslands and brushlands in northern prairie states disappeared, with them went Sharp-tailed Grouse.
Native American “circle dances” have their origins in prairie grouse behavior, “and pioneers waded through a sea of grasslands and shrublands feeding on prairie grouse, but neither could have imagined the day when so few would remain,” states Saving Wide Open Spaces for the Firebird, a Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse management plan for 2022-2032. The report was drafted by Jodie Provost and other members of the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society. Provost is also affiliated with the North American Grouse Partnership, an organization that promotes the conservation of grouse and the habitats needed for their survival and reproduction.
Conservation of grasslands and shrublands “is urgently needed on a broad scale,” according to Saving Wide Open Spaces for the Firebird. A 2019 study of North American bird populations showed a net loss of 2.9 billion birds since 1970; grassland birds, including prairie grouse, declined the most.
Sharp-tails face similar threats throughout their U.S. and Canadian prairie range, Provost says. One of three species in the genus Tympanuchus (the others are the Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chickens), Sharp-tailed Grouse are found in Alaska, much of northern and western Canada, and parts of the western and midwestern U.S. The Sharp-tailed Grouse is the provincial bird of Saskatchewan.
Pre-European settlement, Sharp-tailed Grouse occupied eight Canadian provinces and 21 U.S. states. The birds then ranged from Alaska south to California and New Mexico and east to Quebec. Following settlement, the Sharp-tailed Grouse was extirpated from California, Kansas, Illinois, Iowa, Nevada, and New Mexico.
The New Mexico Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus hueyi), for example, was found only in a portion of northeastern New Mexico and went extinct in 1952. More than 40 years later, in 1994, Robert Dickerman of the University of New Mexico and John Hubbard of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish wrote in the journal Western Birds: “Habitats in this mesa country may be so degraded that no Sharp-tailed Grouse of any stock is likely to prosper, at least until significant improvements are made.”
Now the species inhabits the pine savannas of the eastern upper Midwest across to the shortgrass, mid-grass, and shrub steppe prairies of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain West. Its preferred habitats are savanna-like prairies with grasses dominant, shrubs mixed in, and few patches of trees.
In Minnesota, the Sharp-tail’s range is restricted to the northwestern and east-central parts of the state. “Our Sharp-tail population has declined greatly in the last 50 years,” says Laudenslager. “But controlled burning and tree-clearing have helped prevent some open brushlands and grasslands from turning into woodlands.”
The expansive open landscapes needed by Sharp-tailed Grouse were a conspicuous feature of Minnesota. Based on a pre-settlement vegetation map, states Saving Wide Open Spaces for the Firebird, “11.3 million acres, or more than one-third, of the state’s northern and central forest and transition region were brushy prairie, oak barrens, jack pine barrens, conifer bogs and swamps, and muskeg.” Small-scale farming and logging created more Sharp-tail habitat, and large wildfires such as the Hinckley Fire of 1894 and Cloquet Fire of 1918 burned dense woodlands and turned them into open fields and prairies — for a time.
Based on 1990s land use and cover information, only 1.3 million acres of the northern and central regions of Minnesota were still brushland.
Bad news and good news for Sharp-tailed Grouse
To count Sharp-tailed Grouse in these areas, observers look for males displaying on leks in spring. The 2022 Minnesota average of 12.2 Sharp-tails per lek was similar to the long-term average since 1980, based on spring counts conducted by the DNR and other organizations. But a drop in the number of leks in the state’s east-central region indicates that the population has fallen significantly in that portion of the range, states a DNR report.
“We’ve known for some time that in the east-central region, large, open areas of grassland and brushland are changing and becoming less suitable,” says Charlotte Roy, the DNR’s grouse biologist. “These birds need approximately 1 to 3 square miles of grassland and brushland, so managing their habitat often requires cooperation among multiple landowners.”
Over the last 20 years, Minnesota’s east-central region grouse numbers have gone straight down. Active leks in the region dropped from 67 in 2004 to 18 in 2021. Males per lek fell from 10.4 in 2008 to 7.3 in 2021. The decline led to the closure of the state’s east-central Sharp-tail hunting season in 2021.
Then in 2022, the east-central Sharp-tail population increased: 205 Sharp-tailed Grouse were counted on 21 leks, 55 percent more than the 132 birds counted on 18 leks in 2021. In 2019 in this region, however, 216 grouse were counted on 30 leks. The 2022 increase, according to Roy, “does not signify long-term recovery of the population.” The number of leks in the region remains low, and the leks are smaller in number of birds than those in areas with more abundant Sharp-tailed Grouse, such as the northwest part of the state.
“The increase in the east-central region should be regarded cautiously,” says Roy, “as warm, dry conditions during spring and summer 2021, followed by favorable winter snow roosting conditions [grouse keep warm beneath snow drifts in winter], likely resulted in strong nest success, chick survival, and overwinter survival.”
In the northwest survey region, where the blind south of Baudette is located, 1,779 Sharp-tails were counted on 142 leks in spring 2022, with an average 12.5 grouse per lek. Counts at leks in this region in 2021 and 2022 were similar. “Sharp-tailed Grouse appear to be stable in the northwest region,” says Roy, “although they may be increasing in some parts and declining in others.” For example, biologists in the Greater Prairie-Chicken survey regions (the southern part of the northwest survey region) reported more Sharp-tailed Grouse in areas that once held prairie-chickens. Researchers are investigating why.
In neighboring Wisconsin, the Sharp-tail picture is similar. Bob Hanson of the Wisconsin DNR says that in 2022, the state recorded a 35 percent increase in the number of males in a spring survey compared to 2021. Surveys are conducted on three property types: DNR-managed properties, non-managed properties, and private lands.
“On Wisconsin DNR-managed lands, the 2022 survey documented a 59 percent increase, while on non-managed property, there was a 50 percent decline in the number of male Sharp-tailed Grouse compared to 2021,” states Hanson. “On private lands surveyed, zero grouse were detected compared to one male observed in 2021.” According to a summary, “it should be noted that the current increase in [DNR-managed lands] survey numbers is coming off an all-time low count in 2021, and survey trends still indicate a long-term decline.”
Challenges ahead for the firebird
Degradation and loss of the expansive habitats Sharp-tails need are largely a result of suppression of wildfires that clear the land of vegetation and a lack of sufficient prescribed burning. Also playing a role: conversion of grasslands to croplands; the heavy rains of climate change; and the decline of small-scale farms and livestock producers and therefore loss of small grains, pastures, and hay lands.
According to The Sharp-tailed Grouse in Minnesota, a 1997 Minnesota DNR report, “Primary Sharp-tail habitat in Minnesota is dominated by grasses, sedges (Carex spp.) and willows (Salix spp.). These habitats are often associated with small grain and livestock farming.”
The list of threats seems endless and includes diseases such as West Nile virus, which plague small, isolated populations; structures like fences, wind turbines, solar fields, and powerline corridors that cut across grouse habitat; changing predator populations, such as the expansion of the coyote’s range; and lek interference and nest parasitism by Ring-necked Pheasants.
To survive, firebirds must successfully navigate a gauntlet of dangers.
It’s not all trial by fire, however, for Sharp-tailed Grouse. “The good news is that opportunity abounds for landowners and organizations seeking to sustain and recover habitat and Sharp-tailed Grouse populations,” according to Saving Wide Open Spaces for the Firebird. Planting cover crops, rotational grazing, delayed haying, and creating buffer strips can provide more habitat. “Sharp-tailed Grouse can pioneer new suitable habitats,” states the report, “when source populations and adequate connecting habitats exist in proximity.”
Minnesota has numerous conservation groups that offer opportunities to assist the bird, according to the document. “A more suitable, charismatic species than Sharp-tailed Grouse does not exist to inspire ‘saving wide open spaces.’”
Laudenslager agrees. “Sharp-tails have gathered at the lek near Baudette for at least a dozen years and likely much, much longer. I hope they’ll be there, doing their spring dance, decades from now.”
Prairie dancers: Where and when to go to see America’s five grassland and sagebrush grouse
Can prairie grouse and wind turbines co-exist?
This article appears in the March/April 2023 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe
Read our newsletter!
Sign up for our free e-newsletter to receive news, photos of birds, attracting and ID tips, and more delivered to your inbox.Sign Up for Free