Anne Elliott

Anne Elliott

Posted on 04/17/2015

Photo taken on April 13, 2015

See also...


Fire Bird
declining numbers
listed in Alberta as Sensitive
communal dancing ground
medium-sized prairie grouse
IUCN Status: Least Concern
Tympanuchus phasianellus
Sharp-tailed Grouse
inflated air sack

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Sharp-tailed Grouse displaying

Sharp-tailed Grouse displaying
Four days ago, on 13 April 2015, I was fortunate enough to witness about 24 Sharp-tailed Grouse displaying at their "lek" or communal dancing ground. Five of us went to see this "secret" location on this day. Perhaps a trip of a lifetime.

We had to leave Calgary really early in order to be at the location before the Grouse arrived before sunrise, and we had to stay until they had all left. I had been so excited to get photos of this activity, but, unfortunately, am so disappointed with the quality of all my shots, partly due to not the best light, heavily zoomed (Focal Length [35mm format] - 1200 mm), and also to the conditions under which they were taken. Still, needless to say, I am happy to have had this chance and to get any photos at all!

A few evenings ago, I came across an excellent brochure (pdf file) about Sharp-tailed Grouse on the Internet and will use some of the information from it, instead of using my own words to describe what goes on at a lek. I had seen females of this species before, on Christmas Bird Counts, but not a male.

"Sharp-tailed grouse perform spring courtship displays on communal “dancing grounds” called leks. Here, males compete for breeding opportunities by displaying their "dancing” ability to females. Most activity on the lek occurs in the early morning just before sunrise and for a few hours afterwards. The males’ energetic display includes fluttering wings, rapid foot stomping and spinning in tight circles - reminiscent of wind-up toys. The most dominant males court females with low cooing sounds and by strutting around them with inflated air sacs on their neck and fanned tail feathers. It is nearly a winner-take-all form of competition, as only a few of the males are selected as mates by the females.

Leks are found in areas with dry open ground, where dancing activity keeps the vegetation well-trampled. Leks are used over several weeks beginning in late March and are often used for years, even decades. They are an important part of sharp-tailed grouse life, and the loss of suitable lek habitat can be a limiting factor for sharp-tailed grouse in Alberta.

Male sharp-tailed grouse gather on the lek in late March. In
April the females arrive, sparking increased displaying by the
males. Peak attendance by females on the lek occurs between mid to late April in much of Alberta. Once they have selected a male, hens breed once and then seek out a place to nest, usually in late April to early May.

Leks are an integral part of the lifecycle of prairie grouse. Active leks should never be approached, as any disturbance to the birds may disrupt breeding activities and result in the abandonment of the lek. The locations of active and historical leks are of great interest to grouse biologists.

Native North Americans called the sharp-tailed grouse “Fire Bird” because of their reliance on fires to keep their habitat open in wooded areas. Suppression of natural fire in parkland and boreal areas reduces the amount of open grassland available to sharp-tailed grouse.

Sharp-tailed grouse were an important food source for native North Americans and they continue to be a popular game bird for hunters today.

In Alberta, the sharp-tailed grouse is listed as “Sensitive.”
While exact population numbers are not known, there is a feeling that sharp-tailed grouse have decreased significantly in numbers over the past 40 years. This trend is supported by lek counts, hunter surveys, aerial counts and Breeding Bird Survey data. Declining numbers are the result of a reduction in the quality and quantity of sharp-tailed grouse habitat, particularly the loss of quality nesting and brood-rearing habitat." From