Up The Road: Sage-Grouse Country

Feb 14, 2018

Credit Jeannie Stafford USFWS

We head up the road this week to Sage-Grouse country. California just happens to take in the far western edge of the Great Basin, high plateaus known for sagebrush and wide open spaces. California is the far edge of home for the Greater Sage-Grouse, which lives only in the West, nibbling at and nesting in sagebrush.

City people tend to think of sagebrush country as some kind of ugly, fuzzy desert, lonely landscapes that could only be improved by shopping malls and swimming pools. Which shows what they know. Lifeless, Sage-Grouse country is not.

It was out in Modoc County sagebrush that I had one of my best-ever days as a travel writer. I’d taken a wrong turn (no need to admit how often that happens!) and was roaming around on dirt roads hoping I’d find an intersection with road signs that hadn’t been shot to shreds, so I could figure out where in the heck I was. Suddenly I heard this low, distant rumble—then felt the earth shake—and out of nowhere, hundreds of Pronghorns showed up to run alongside me, streaming through the sagebrush on both sides of my little Toyota truck. It was so astonishing I couldn’t think what to do, except just keep going. And keep staring at the stunning assembly of white-rumped antelopes as the herd danced through the sagebrush and stared right back. After a few moments, I’d apparently exhausted their interest and, just as suddenly as they’d arrived, off they went in another direction. Wow. Nothing to do at a moment like that but stop right in the middle of the road and thank God for the privilege of being alive.

Credit Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management

One day I hope to attend a spring concert performance of the Greater Sage-Grouse, also sagebrush royalty. The fellows really know how to put on a show for the ladies, desperate to attract their attention and approval. Sage-Grouse need lots of space, well away from any disturbance, for the show to go on. They are very sensitive to disruption, and incursions of all kinds—including oil and gas drilling, not to mention uncontrolled wildfires—now threaten their existence. Their historic populations have been reduced by 90 percent. This is how the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the romantic dance of the Greater Sage-Grouse:

Each spring, at dawn, the sagebrush country of western North America fills with a strange burbling sound and an even stranger sight. Dozens of male Greater Sage-Grouse puff their chests and fan their starburst tails like avant-garde turkeys. They inflate bulbous yellow air sacs and thrust with their heads to produce weird pops and whistles. A quick aside from me: With a thick, white-feathered ruff framing head and chest, like the ermine trim on a king’s robe; fully round profile; and puffed-up royal stance, I always think of Henry VIII.

Greater Sage-Grouse offer one of the best examples of the breeding system known as lekking—where males gather in a confined area to perform courtship displays for females. . . . Females visit these leks to size up the displays and choose their mates. Despite all the male brawn on display . . . the females . . . are in charge. Haven’t you guys out there always suspected as much?

From roughly March through May, males gather on leks at dawn. There they perform a complex, highly choreographed display that is among the most extraordinary wildlife sights in North America. With tail fanned and erect, a male repeatedly gulps air while stepping forward; then forcefully releases it. Standing tall, with inflated chest held high, the male sweeps his wings across his white breast, creating a swishing noise. He tilts his head back, rapidly inflating, bouncing, and deflating the yellow, balloon-like pouches on his chest . . . . creating a series of echoing pops. These displays are performed almost continuously, and up to 10 times per minute, for several hours in the early morning.

And that, fellas, is how you get a gal’s attention.