Birds & Birding

Lek’s Watch Greater Sage Grouse

April 4, 2017

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Join us to watch one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in North America – the greater sage grouse courtship display. Each spring at dawn a strange thing happens out in the sagebrush. Male greater sage grouse gather in open areas known as leks, as if on a stage, to strut their stuff in a dazzling and unusual performance.

“They like to pick spots that don’t have much vegetation,” Jay Kerby, a plant ecologist and project manager with the Nature Conservancy in Oregon explains. “We assume it’s because you don’t have a lot of shrubs blocking the view between males and females.”

A male will stand tall, inflate the yellow air sacs on his chest, fan out his tail into a spiky starburst, hunch his wings, and raise the collar of feathers behind his head. He soon begins to bob his head, all the while sweeping his wings across his chest and pushing the air from the sacs, creating a sound that begins like the squeaky noise of washing glass and ends in a series of pops. Male sage grouse can keep this up for several hours a day. And they continue the display from March through May.

Seeing them in action would usually require a trip out to the chilly sagebrush steppe before dawn when the birds are actively displaying. But you don’t have to get out your winter coat, we’re bringing greater sage grouse straight to your living room via a live lek cam in Oregon.

You can watch the live cam between 8 AM and 12 PM Eastern Time (5-9 AM Pacific) or check out the highlight reel from last year’s cam above  courtesy of the Nature Conservancy in Oregon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and an anonymous private landowner.

Learn more and see the video on the Oregon page.

Females come to the lek to watch, listen and pick the perfect mate. They pick only the males with the best genetics – as determined by the male’s display and his stamina in continuing when other males have begun to wear down. Only one or two male sage grouse will mate with most of the females (one male was recorded mating with 37 females in 37 minutes!). The rest of the males might mate once. More likely they will leave the lek without mating, head out to the sagebrush and work on getting in better shape for the next year.

Males may look like they are standing around the lek at random, but they are each defending a small area and will fight if other males encroach on that territory – punching each other with their “wrist” bones.

“Seeing it in person is pretty awesome,” Kerby says. “I grew up in grouse country and they’re easy to see on the lek for part of the year. For the rest of year the birds are well camouflaged and avoid populated areas – it’s hard to see one unless you almost to stumble right over one. They’re kind of invisible out there on the landscape.”

Sage grouse on the lek are sensitive to noise and anything else that interferes with females getting the best possible view of their dance and hearing the full performance, so the camera is placed unobtrusively and uses infrared light that sage grouse can’t see to minimize any chance of disturbance. This means that if you’re watching early, you’ll see the cam in black and white; as the sun comes up you’ll see the display in full color.

Male greater sage-grouse on a lek in Butte County, South Dakota. Photo © Steve Fairbairn / USFWS through a Creative Commons license
Male greater sage-grouse on a lek in Butte County, South Dakota. Photo © Steve Fairbairn / USFWS through a Creative Commons license

If you make the pilgrimage to see a lek in person, please keep the noise to a minimum – for instance, try not to drive your car too close to the lek or make a lot of noise around the birds.

“Wildlife biologists have some concerns about people loving the sage grouse leks to death,” Kerby explains. “We don’t want too many visitors to chase them off the breeding grounds.”

Unlike swans, albatrosses, penguins or the many bird species that are known for pair bonding and cooperative nesting, greater sage grouse mate and then part ways. Males have put all their energy into the courtship display and females will put theirs into raising the resulting chicks.

“The really big threats to greater sage grouse in Oregon are ecological in nature,” Kerby notes, “expansion of junipers into shrubland and the loss of natural wildfire cycles. Historically fire would have pushed those trees back. A lot less fire is allowing juniper to encroach. The other main threat is in some ways the diametric opposite, too much wildfire where there is cheatgrass invasion. In that part of the range fire is more frequent than it historically was and degrades habitat.”

Greater sage-grouse lek near Bodie, California. Photo © Jeannie Stafford/USFS through a Creative Commons license
Greater sage-grouse lek near Bodie, California. Photo © Jeannie Stafford/USFS through a Creative Commons license

Successful mating — and protected habitat — is critical to the greater sage grouse’s survival. The Nature Conservancy and the USFWS are working together with a multitude of partners to ensure both the greater sage grouse and its sagebrush habitat are protected.

“The big picture is that the ecological threats to the sage grouse threaten our values as well,” Kerby says. “If you’re a rancher and you have a lot of cheatgrass and juniper trees, you don’t have good grass for cattle. If you live downwind of big wildfire, you can have health issues from smoke, ash and soil spoiling air quality. What’s good for the sage grouse is good for people too.”

We welcome your questions and observations about what you see on the cam. Our scientists including Jay Kerby and spatial ecologist Holly Copeland will be responding to your questions in the comments section below.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa Feldkamp is the senior coordinator for new science audiences. She loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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1 comment

  1. Thank you for this incredible article your work is so valuable,
    You have provide us with the amazing beauty of NATURE