Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek: Ancient dance, ancient birds

Sharp-tailed Grouse. Photo copyright  © Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Sharp-tailed Grouse displaying purple neck patch.  © SB
Recently, I had an awesome opportunity — to visit a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek near Regina, Saskatchewan, and watch these prairie birds perform their dance of dominance.

It's all about mating — but the female grouse didn't seem to care.

In fact, we only saw one bird that may (or may not) have been a female Sharp-tailed Grouse during the two hours we were there. (Males and females look alike, except when the males are actively lekking.)

I love that word, lek, whether in verb or noun form.

It so well describes the dominance displays of a few human males I've known, who apparently saw fashion (no jeans/running shoes, please!) as part of their corporate dominance plan.

The video, below, shows some footage I took of part of their lek dance.

And I loved seeing these birds! If any avian species has ever made me think of dinosaurs, their potential cousins or ancestors, Sharp-tailed Grouse in full lek would be it.

They prowl, they pounce, they prance, they dance. They make themselves very tall, then very broad. And then they stare. Long meaningful stares of threat... or forgetfulness. They sit down. The focus, perhaps wanders, or perhaps it's all a waiting game. Eventually, one male ambles off. A pause, and then the lek begins again.

Sharp-tailed Grouse. Photo copyright  © Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Low and broad, the Sharp-tailed Grouse strut. © SB
Sharp-tailed Grouse. Photo copyright  © Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
The Sharp-tailed Grouse also leap into the air
- and at other males. Beware! 
© SB
The birds I saw claimed a section of pasture near Regina — there used to be several Sharp-tailed Grouse leks near the city, but this seems to be the only one now left.

Every morning around dawn (that's now about 5:30 a.m.), the birds gather. They cluck, they chatter, their pinions rattle and they do a gobbling thing, a little like the sound of turkeys.

About 12 grouse were gathered for the lekking display when we arrived. The neighbour's dog chased them off by rushing across the pasture to meet our two cars, but dogs are easily bored and mating birds, determined... So the dogs wandered off and the grouse flew back to their chosen spot of trampled prairie. (Yes, this was a remnant of original prairie, with club moss and other low plants forming the fragile and essential base layer.)

The Sharp-tailed Grouse appeared to divide the lek space into sections, within which several individual dominance displays took place. They say not all breed, just the ultimate winners, so the gene stakes are high.

Sharp-tailed Grouse. Photo copyright  © Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Sharp-tailed Grouse on the lek. © SB
The Sharp-tailed Grouse has been Saskatchewan's bird emblem since 1945. I visited this lek with friends (including Trevor Herriot) from the Public Pastures - Public Interest group, to learn more about this amazing native prairie bird.

What are these? Sharp-tailed Grouse.
Location: Near Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.  

Photo date: April 27, 2013.


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