- Common Name:
- Greater sage grouse
- Scientific Name:
- Centrocercus urophasianus
- Group Name:
- Average Life Span:
- A few years
- Up to two feet tall
- Around four pounds
- IUCN Red List Status:
- Near threatened
A symbol of the American West, the greater sage grouse is a large, ground-dwelling bird known for its spell-binding mating dances, in which the males inflate their chests to show off their strength.
Greater sage grouse are sexually dimorphic, meaning the male and female look different. Females are small and football-shaped, with a black belly and white-speckled feathers, while males resemble turkeys, with black heads and throats and two sets of voluminous tail feathers—one particularly spiky and eye-catching, the other brown with white tips. They also sport a fluffy white ruff, almost like an infinity scarf, that surrounds two greenish-yellow air sacs used during courtship.
Named for its favorite food, sagebrush, the greater sage grouse also eats plant buds and insects.
Mating season, which runs from March through May, is centered around the lek, a courtship behavior in which males gather in one spot to show off for females wandering around to browse the mates on offer.
Tail feathers held high, male grouse perform before the watching females, whistling and sucking in air to fill those air sacs, then pushing the air out to make a popping sound. The whole walk is called a strut, and a series of struts is called a bout, which can last a few hours.
The volume of the pop and size of the air sacs give females a good idea of a male’s robustness, and ultimately whether he’ll sire healthy young, which she raises and cares for herself. Several females may mate with one particularly attractive male, while some males may not get chosen at all. (Check out the greater sage grouse “lek cam,” live from Bend, Oregon.)
Females dig out bowl-shaped nests under sagebrush plants, lining them with feathers, twigs, and plant material. They'll lay between six to nine eggs a year, which hatch about a month later. To avoid ground predators, such as badgers, weasels, and snakes, newborns are well developed, catching their own insects immediately and taking short flights within a few weeks of hatching.
Greater sage grouse, of course, need sage brush: They nest in it, the chicks hatch underneath it, and in winter, it’s the only food they have.
Yet due to widespread development and agriculture throughout the American West, much of the original sagebrush is gone. Wildfires, oil and gas drilling, and overgrazing by livestock are also threats to the bird’s existence. Though the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers the bird near threatened by extinction because of its declining population, it is not listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
In the early 2010s, a massive conservation effort by the U.S. government and 11 western states—particularly Wyoming—helped boost populations of the bird by protecting private and public lands. As a result, in 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to place the bird on the Endangered Species List. But in 2019, the government allowed drilling on nine million acres of crucial sage grouse habitat, reversing some of the earlier gains.
In 2021, a report by the United States Geological Survey showed greater sage grouse populations are not improving, and numbers throughout their range have plummeted by 80 percent since 1965. Between 200,000 and 500,000 birds are estimated to remain in the wild.
DID YOU KNOW
Two rival males will sometimes engage in a standoff, in which they both crouch down and bob their heads, clucking repeatedly. These conflicts can result in physical fights, though they rarely cause harm.
Females prefer males who are persistent, strutting more times in a single bout than other males and continuing to strut for females—whether they showed interest or not.
Sage grouse lack gizzard stones, which help other birds digest tough food. That’s part of why they stick to softer plants such as sagebrush.