Sharptails declining in many areas, but spring mating dance ritual goes on
SOLON SPRINGS, Wis. -- We could hear them before we saw them, when the light in the eastern sky was still dim. It was a sort of cooing sound at first. Then clucks and something like muffled owl hoots. Then a whistle-like whine. And finally the cl...
SOLON SPRINGS, Wis. - We could hear them before we saw them, when the light in the eastern sky was still dim.
It was a sort of cooing sound at first. Then clucks and something like muffled owl hoots. Then a whistle-like whine. And finally the clicking. When the clicking got louder, that’s when the action started.
Suddenly, sharp-tailed grouse appeared out of a low-hanging ground fog, first ones and twos running into view and eventually building to an even dozen. All of them with tails up, wings out. All of them males. All of them sex-starved and ready to rumble.
Just south of Solon Springs in Douglas County, the Friends of the Bird Sanctuary and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources set up a tent blind in the exact spot, called a lek, where male sharp-tailed grouse love to dance. The blind is open to the public to reserve, and the dancing will continue nearly every morning through about mid-May.
“That particular lek has been going for at least 40 years, maybe more," said Greg Kessler, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist. “There were reports years ago of as many as 20 or 30 males on it. It’s been down to as few as four. Now it’s back up to about a dozen, and that’s pretty good. They are hanging in there.”
Out of a nearly square-mile of open field here, it’s unclear why the grouse pick this exact spot every spring to strut their stuff.
“There’s a little rise in the land there. We think it’s a combination of visibility and maybe how the sounds resonate. But we really don't know," Kessler said.
Male sharptails gather in open fields like this to attract females in the hope of mating. It's called dancing, but it's much more. There's fighting and calling and squawking and flying and running and stomping and spinning and general mayhem.
And then, as fast as it all starts, it stops. The birds freeze in place, like some unseen referee blew a whistle. Then, with no apparent signal, they all begin again in unison, as if choreographed in practice. Sometimes the entire flock will fly away at once, only to return a few minutes later.
The males often pair off, then square off face-to-face. These mini battles range from violent wing bashing - with jumping and brutal footwork - to simply setting down and staring at each other. Sometimes they lay almost prostrate, wings spread, necks stretched, beak-to-beak, just inches apart - simply staring at each other. They appear too tired to move.
Then it all starts up again. Most of the action is happening just 30-40 feet from the blind.
Early in spring, the show is mostly a guy thing. The hens aren't interested yet and most don't even show up to watch. But slowly now the hens are coming, a few at a time. They'll pick their favorite male to mate with, right there in front of the flock.
It’s unclear to us mere humans what the females are looking for, exactly. All the male dancers appear to be pretty close in talent.
After the fog burned off the dancing really got going, and, on what turned into a sunny morning last week, the males kept going for nearly three hours.
Steady decline, but hope remains It's a show that's been playing for centuries, but one that surprisingly few have actually seen. And, if they don’t hurry, it may be too late. Sharp-tailed numbers are slowly fading across most of their original range in northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. While sharptails are common in states just to the west, only pockets of birds exist now in areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin, where European settlers claimed sharptails in flight blocked the sun.
Much of the Northland was perfect sharp-tailed habitat for centuries, with frequent wildfires clearing brush and trees and creating the vast, open fields that sharptails desire - not just to mate but in which to feed and raise their young. Native Americans called them the fire bird because sharptails thrived so much where there had been a recent fire.
But Kessler is holding out hope that the birds can be maintained in the area with the help of forest managers on county, state, federal and private lands. By using logging techniques to mimic fire, Kessler said there’s been some success at keeping enough open areas to keep sharptails on the Northland landscape.
Last year, the Lake Superior Landscape Restoration Partnership completed a three-year project, relocating 160 sharptails from northwestern Minnesota to the 22,000-acre Moquah Barrens in Bayfield County where the U.S. Forest Service has been conducting regular controlled fires to restore open habitat. While some of those birds scattered, some stayed, and there are now males dancing on leks there for the first time in decades.
“If we can maintain enough of these open areas, and develop some connectivity between them, through logging efforts, to get some genetic diversity, I think we'll have some birds here for a while," Kessler said.
Sharp-tailed grouse Flocks of these open-land grouse were once so large that pioneers said they sometimes blocked the sun. But as the region’s grasslands and brushlands have dwindled - either developed by people or grown back into forests or tall brush - so have sharptails. Once found throughout Minnesota, this bird's range now is restricted to pockets in northwestern and east-central Minnesota.
Size: Somewhat larger than the ruffed grouse.
Length: Between 15 and 20 inches.
Weight: Between two and three pounds.
Color: Mottled brown and gray. During spring, the male's eyebrows are yellow/orange and its air-inflated throat sacks are lavender.
Sound: A cackle while flying. During spring mating season, males will try to attract females by making coos and clucks, stomping their feet and clicking their tail feathers.
Food: During the summer and fall, sharptails eat a variety of weed seeds and small grain. During the winter, buds and twig ends of arctic birch, paper birch and aspen are favored. Chicks eat mainly insects during the summer.
Predators: Great horned owls, goshawks, foxes, skunks and raccoons all hunt and eat sharptails.
- Source: Minnesota DNR
Where to reserve a sharp-tailed viewing blind In Minnesota: You can reserve a blind near Meadowlands through the Cloquet DNR Wildlife office 218-878-5662; a blind near McGregor through the Aitkin DNR Wildlife office 218-429-3012; and blinds in northwestern Minnesota through the Baudette DNR Wildlife office 218-634-1705, ext. 222
In Wisconsin: You can reserve the blind at the Douglas County Bird Sanctuary (also called the Douglas County Wildlife Area) just south of Solon Springs by emailing the Friends of the Bird Sanctuary at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a Send a Facebook message to Friends of the Bird Sanctuary. There are also three blinds available at the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area west of Minong. Reserve through the Friends of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area at fnbwa.org/blinds. The group requests a donation of $10 per sharp-tailed grouse blind reservation.
Tips: You’ll need to get up early and into the blind at least a half-hour before sunrise… dress warm, you may be sitting still in near freezing temperatures for up to three hours while the birds dance… be quiet and sit still… bring a camera with a good lens… best viewing is on calm, fair mornings… little or no activity will be seen on windy or rainy mornings.