The Greater Sage-Grouse
Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)
Well-known for the males' elaborate courtship displays, which take place on areas called “leks” Greater Sage-Grouse are strongly tied to the sagebrush habitats of western North America.
The Greater Sage-Grouse is a very large, (22”-28”) dark grouse with a long, pointed tail. The adult male has a dark gray back, black throat, white breast, and black belly. In full breeding display, it inflates its yellow air sac from underneath white breast feathers and fans its tail an erects feather plumes on its head. The female is smaller than the male, with a brown throat and breast, and black belly, lacking the male’s yellow air sac and ornate head plumes.
Once widespread over much of western North America, the Greater Sage-Grouse has seen its range contract greatly during the past 200 years. It is now found primarily in eastern Montana, Wyoming, northwestern Colorado, Utah, southern Idaho, Nevada, eastern Oregon, and northeastern California. Historical population is estimated to have been in the millions; its current population is estimated between 250,000 and 500,000. Audubon’s WatchList categorizes the species as “Yellow” – indicating that it is rare or declining.
The major threat to Greater Sage-Grouse is the continued degradation and destruction of sagebrush habitats across the West. Much habitat has been destroyed for farming or development, or degraded by grazing or invasive plants. Oil and natural gas drilling renders even good habitat unusable.
To learn more, visit the Greater Sage Grouse profile on Audubon's Watchlist.
What the Heck is a Lek?
A lek is a traditional breeding ground and behavior; the name is derived from the Swedish word for “play.” Greater Sage-Grouse return to the same leks year after year, like salmon returning to their spawning grounds. In fact, some leks may have been the site of the sage-grouse’s elaborate springtime courtship display for thousands of years. The loss of a lek, to flooding, agriculture or energy development, or other habitat destruction, has profound consequences for the grouse who return to it each year. For example, the creation of Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado required the flooding of several important leks – and for several years afterward, male grouse continued with an ill-fated effort to display on the ice above their old lek.
The Greater Sage-Grouse display is among the most complex of bird mating rituals. Dozens of males strut, fan their tail features, and pop the yellow air sacs on their breasts to create a “wup” sound that can be heard two miles away. Beginning around dawn, and peaking in intensity at the time of the full moon, males display for three to four hours. A single male may mate with 20 females in one morning. All this activity requires a lot of energy, and males lose a significant amount of body weight during breeding season. Sage is the primary food source for this species.
The annual event has inspired the Grouse Dance performed by several Plains tribes of Native Americans, in which drums imitate the rhythms of the male sage-grouses’ air sacs. Other birds, including peacock, Wild Turkey and birds of paradise, as well as antelopes and at least one fish species also lek.