For the Birds Radio Program: Searching for the Elusive Sage Grouse

Original Air Date: May 1, 1996

Today Laura Erickson talks about her quest to see the elusive Sage Grouse. 4:14

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Last year, my family went to Yellowstone National Park for our vacation. My kids liked seeing moose, elk, and other wildlife, and particularly enjoyed the thermal attractions, especially Old Faithful and the mud pots, but if you ask them what they remember most vividly, it would probably be how their mom spent most of the whole trip searching for two birds: the American Dipper and the Sage Grouse.

On the very last day of the trip, Joey finally found a dipper for me. It’s a mousy gray, chunky little bird who walks and bobs right under rushing rapids and waterfalls, but the kids didn’t find it exciting except for the effect it had on their mom. No matter how hard they tried, though, no one managed to find me a Sage Grouse. This is the largest of all native gallinaceous birds, with well-fed males weighing 4-7 pounds, and it’s supposed to be relatively common on the sage plains, so you’d think one would stick out like a sore thumb, but noooooooo. Sage Grouse skulk about, often crouching without moving a muscle for many long minutes, blending in so well with the sagebrush that they survive despite a myriad of hawks, coyotes, foxes, and other predators that eagerly hunt them for meat.

Of course, the main problem Sage Grouse have faced since the 1800s has been from humans. On the wing, they make big, easy targets, and testosterone-charged humans in the 1800s liked to boast about killing over 100 in a day. Even then, some people were more curious about the birds’ habits than eager to shoot them, especially because birds that live on little but sagebrush don’t taste very good. One Dr. Newberry wrote in 1874:

A very fine male [Sage Grouse] … was passed by nearly [our] whole party, within thirty feet, in open ground. I noticed him soon, perhaps, as he saw us, and waited to watch his movements. As [we] approached he sank down on the ground, depressing his head, and lying as motionless as a stick or root, which he greatly resembled. After the party had passed I moved toward him, when he depressed his head till it rested on the ground, and evidently made himself as small as possible. He did not move till I had approached within 15 feet of him, when he arose and I shot him.

I don’t need to read many of these accounts about birds from the last century to feel like the 1990s are a golden age of enlightenment and civility.

Anyway, I felt really sad about missing Sage Grouse last summer, and not only because this was the most common bird I was missing from my life list that could be found in nearby states. When I started birding 21 years ago, I spent hours poring over field guides, studying every bird, and there was something so improbably fantastic about displaying Sage Grouse with tail spikes fanned out and enormous inflated air pouches on their chests that I’ve yearned to see one ever since.

I decided that this was the year I was going to see a displaying Sage Grouse come hell or high water, and worked out a plan. Since I’m also trying to build up my life list to 600 before the turn of the century, I plotted out a trip that would give me two lifers at their most spectacular—the Sage Grouse and the threatened Lesser Prairie-Chicken. I researched the easiest places to find these two birds displaying in Colorado, and my sister-in-law Jean and I set out on April 15 to fulfill this dream. As it turns out, Sage Grouse are even better in person than in the book. Next time I’ll tell you about these jolly, vital birds.