April 6, 2017

By Casey Adams
Each spring, sage grouse gather in small grassy pockets of the sagebrush flats. The males puff up, as young males tend to do, in hopes of catching the eye of a few hens. But sage grouse put on a show with more than puffery—they do so with fashion and dance.

Male sage grouse puts on a show
George Grady Grossman photo

First, these large birds of Wyoming’s sagebrush flats fan out their tails to display great, spike-tipped fans behind their heads. From behind, the female will see the black array of feathers are adorned with white spots to elevate their fashion. As he struts by, she will notice a few coordinated feathers curl off the back of his head, taking on the role of an atilt hat, at once dapper and flamboyant.

She’ll also admire his scarf of full, white plumage around his neck, giving him the look of a refined gentleman walking about town on a chilly evening. As if warding off the cold with his expensive white scarf, the male will lift his shoulders and pull the scarf and his wings forward.

But his next move clashes with this elegant attire. The male sage grouse literally puffs his chest—two yellow air sacks—through the white scarf that covers his chest. He juts them out in their bold, egg-yolk glory, then slaps them together a couple times, creating a surprising sound of giant, cartoon water drops falling.

Watch the fascinating, impressive, and amusing demonstration, as filmed by Christian Hagenlocher on a visit last year.

This time of year, the locals know where to go to watch these masters of dance and décor strutting away. Breeding grounds—leks freckle Wind River Country’s landscape, and the runway show goes live pre-dawn most spring mornings. Curtain call is about the time you’re ready for brunch, if you forgot to bring donuts.

See the sage grouse strut. Photo: Scott Copeland
Scott Copeland photo

This spring tradition doesn’t have to be just for those of us who call Wind River Country home. We’re all just visitors on these mornings—whether our license plates say Wyoming or Rhode Island. Come join us—we’ll save you a seat on the two-track. Find directions to a few local leks here.

A note, to accompany your invitation: 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.

Posted in Notes From the Field