Sharp-tailed Grouse – So you think you can dance?

Move over Calgary Stampede, there’s a rival to your claim of being the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth!

When we were offered a rare invitation to witness Sharp-tailed Grouse at a lek in southern Alberta, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  A lek is an open area where male birds carry on courtship behaviour each spring.

As this location is on private land we are not permitted to disclose the location of the lek to protect the species, but we can certainly share the experience!

Males arrive at the lek very early – around dawn.  As spectators, we had to get up at 4:15 am in order to arrive on location before sunrise so as not to disturb the birds once they start the courtship rituals.  We carefully made our way to the site and used a blind to remain hidden from the birds.

There were about 30-40 male Sharp-tailed Grouse at the lek and they were “dancing” all around the site.  Heads down, tails up, wings outstretched and stamping their feet rapidly – about 20 times per second !  We can see where all the native dancers at the Stampede got their moves from!  When you hear, and see, 30-40 grouse doing this simultaneously it is truly an amazing act of nature to witness.  Their feathers rattle, they inflate their purple neck sacks, and they make very interesting cooing and gulping sounds at the same time–much like festive Macarena dance!

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(male courtship dance at first light)

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(head down, tail up, and gyrating!)

The males were competing for dominance, as only the dominant male (or two) out of the whole group, will be selected by the females to sire the next generation.  The males faced off in head to head battles (often striking one another) until the matter was settled.

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(males facing off for dominance)

Eventually about 3 females arrived and that’s when the males really ramped up the jigging and shaking!  The females walked around slowly perusing the wares on display, selected the male that had the best moves, made quick work of the business at hand, and carried on.

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(female arrives to evaluate the dancing – note the abnormal “crossbill-like” beak)

Our lek experience lasted about 3 hours and eventually, when it was evident no more females were coming, the males became quiet and still (probably exhausted from the effort).  Just a silently as they arrived, they all flew off.

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(closeup of a male – nice eyebrows!)

It was an awesome outdoor show, one we have never been privileged to witness before!  We never cease to be amazed at the variety of wildlife and birds right here in Alberta.  We think the Sharp-tailed Grouse know how to dance 🙂

Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt

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