March 23, 2016

Each spring, sage grouse gather in small grassy pockets of the sagebrush flats. Each spring, I struggle to find the words to describe their behavior therein. The males puff up, as males are wont to do, in hopes of catching the eye of a few hens. But when sage grouse put on a show, they do so in confounding fashion.

These large birds—called bombers when they take flight for good reason—fan out their tails to display great, spiked fans behind their heads. From behind, the ladies will see the black array of feathers are adorned with white spots to elevate their fashion.

As a rooster struts by, she will notice a few feathers curl off the back of his head, taking on the role of an a-tilt hat, at once dapper and flamboyant. She’ll also admire the scarf of full, white plumage around his neck, giving him the look of a refined gentleman walking about town on a brisk evening.

Male sage grouse puts on a show
George Grady Grossman photo

As if warding off the cold with his expensive white scarf, the male will lift his shoulders and wings and pulls them forward. But his next move confounds his elegance. The male sage grouse literally puffs his chest—two air sacks covered with yellow feathers—through the white scarf that covers his chest. He juts them out in their bold, primary-color glory, then slaps them together a couple times, emitting a surprising sound of giant, cartoon water drops falling.

So each spring, these males gather to put this display on for future generations’ sake, and each year I watch from respectful distance and try to find words to better describe it. Every year, I find I bounce between two, as the males bounce their egg-yolk breasts across the prairie: elegant and comical.

Sage grouse show off plumage
Scott Copeland photo

Sage grouse have a prominent role in Wyoming. They are a keystone species whose wellbeing is indicative of the general health of the high-mountain desert ecosystem, particularly under the pressure of community development, recreation, and oil and gas development. In my lifetime, I’ve seen populations dip and rebound; this year sage grouse populations in Wyoming reached the highest numbers on record. Last week, I witnessed the largest flock in my personal memory strutting away on the breeding ground (called a lek) I’ve visited for the past several years. More than 60 birds swept me up in their detailed and graceful appearance and then pulled me into fits of giggles as they slid, South-Park-like, across the grass to stick their yellow boobs in other birds’ faces.

Sage Grouse in Front of the Sunrise

Spring traditions like driving down a two-track in the dark and watching sage grouse dance through binoculars and a just-clean-enough truck windshield renew my appreciation for Wyoming and the Wind River Mountains. Each spring reminds me of the hidden gems in these vast stretches of sagebrush and foothills—there to impress and entertain us if we only look. For as I sit and watch this Easter-morn entertainment, I can also hear the highway behind me, carrying oblivious travelers across what they might mistake as repetitive, monotonous country.

When you set out to watch sage grouse dance in their full regalia, remember, they dance not for you, nor for me. They dance for their future and that of these rich landscapes. Please follow the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s guidelines to ensure you don’t disrupt this important breeding ritual. You’ll also find directions to a lek near Lander—one that remains very special to me—here in Wind River Country. I’ll save you a seat … and a thesaurus.

Posted in Notes From the Field