One of Central Oregon's most beloved (and most unique) bird species is the Greater Sage Grouse, or Centrocercus urophasianus. These fascinating birds have incredibly intricate mating rituals... with some pretty eye-catching anatomy to match. Their presence in the American West has led them to become a sort of mascot, prized by Native American Culture, and spoke of in an almost mythical way by birding enthusiasts. As the name implies, the Sage Grouse is entirely reliant on its habit of Sagebrush, a habitat which is shrinking rapidly.
As is often the case in bird species, the females sport a much simpler plumage than the males. The females are small, with brown and white feathers, scattered with bits of black. They are smaller as well, averaging about 22-23 inches in length, in between a crow and a goose. Both genders sport black bellies, and mottled brown and white feathers on the wings.
GREAT DANCE MOVES
The male Greater Sage Grouse, on the other hand, cuts quite a voluptuous figure. He has a rich crest of white feathers adorning his chest and neck, bright yellow markings above his eyes, and an ornate fan of feathers on his backside.
The most unique characteristic of the males is easily the two yellow balloons that expand from his chest when he makes a mating call, as you can see in the video below. These 'balloons' are called gular sacs, and are an important part of the male's ability to attract females
The mating dance of the Greater Sage Grouse is mesmerizing, bizarre, and attracts tons of eager bird-watchers from all over the world every year. We must caution against seeking out the Sage Grouse to see this mating dance, due to the Sage Grouse's dwindling population-- we don't want anyone ruining the mood!
HABITAT AND MATING
The Greater Sage Grouse is picky about where it chooses to call home, only residing in certain locations across the Intermountain West. Around 60% of its diet consists of Sagebrush, and during winter it is all the bird eats. This makes it a sensitive species, when the habitat disappears, so does the bird.
During the spring mating season, groups of grouse around 70 in size gather in ancestral mating grounds call Leks. They return to the same mating grounds every year, and the males will gather in a large clearing. For the entirety of the season, males will dance and battle for the prime spot in the Lek, and the attention of the females. The dominant male will be located in the center of the area. Females return every day to judge the males, and will only choose one, so competition is fierce.
The Greater Sage Grouse is under extreme threat, with an 80% decline in population over the past 100 years! Much of this has to do with habitat destruction. Development of the sagebrush seas created limited habitat. This can be especially impactful if a mating area is destroyed, as generations of Grouse will return to the same mating area every year, even if they find roads and building in place of the Sage and open fields they need.