For the Birds Radio Program: Eureka!

Original Air Date: May 3, 1996

Laura Erickson set out to see a Sage Grouse and ended up finding Mae West and Robert Frost. 3:57

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Imagine a Mae West impersonators contest. The contestants are strutting around the stage, white feather boas around their necks, chests flared out improbably, each one trying to outdo the others. They pump up huge air sacs on their chests, and whenever they let out the air, they gulp with a sound like a coffee percolator.

That pretty much sums up what a Sage Grouse display is like. Every April and May, these huge prairie birds join together on stomping grounds—the groups of males are called leks. The word lek comes from the Swedish leka for play, and every male Sage Grouse is playing his hardest. Long ago, it was an easy matter to find hundreds, or even a thousand, male Sage Grouse in a single lek. Nowadays, people are lucky to find 20, and when I was watching the most famous Sage Grouse display area in Colorado, only four males could be found. They were shot in huge numbers during white settlement, and still serve as a game bird, but their main problem comes from land use—farming and grazing have destroyed much of the sage grass that they depend upon. Sage Grouse have more delicate gizzards than their relatives, and can’t digest woody tissue as our own Ruffed Grouse do. Sage Grouse can only digest insects and soft leaves and young shoots from sage plants and wild pease. They have disappeared from much of their former range, and within their present range they are much rarer than they used to be. When it comes to development, much of what people call progress is really one step forward and two or three steps backward.

But even four Sage Grouse displaying makes an impressive sight. They direct the vast majority of their energy at one another. Females serve as judges, and choose as winner the only one who will be allowed to mate with them, but the losers don’t seem disappointed—apparently the fun is in the display itself, which must be rewarding and fulfilling on its own, like the best of any competitions.

When they’re not displaying, Sage Grouse look more like pheasants than partridge, with their huge bodies and long, pointed tails. They are readily distinguished from pheasants, even from a distance, by their black belly, present on both males and females. Of course, this is only if you happen to actually notice one. Gallinaceous birds are all big and tasty, surviving in a hostile world of hunters by being among the most secretive of all bird families, and Sage Grouse are perhaps the most secretive and furtive of all. They skulk about from sagebrush to sagebrush, looking exactly like a chunk of sagebrush themselves. Perhaps that fear and repression in their daily lives explains why when they finally come out into the open during these spring play sessions, they dance with such exuberant and ostentatious abandon. They reminded me of Robert Frost’s poem, “Revelation”:

We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.

Tis pity if the case require,
Or so we say, that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.