Prairie grouse indicator of functioning ecosystem

Jacquie Ermer
Regional Terrestrial Resources Supervisor, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks

During these times of humans trying to keep our social distance, wildlife are still going about their business. For example, sharp-tailed grouse are actively out looking for love in the grasslands this time of year. The amazing sight and sound of sharp-tailed grouse courtship display is an annual sign that spring is here on the prairie. In South Dakota, male sharp-tailed grouse begin defending territories on leks, also known as “dancing grounds,” as early as late February with peak activity in early April. Grouse leks are typically found on knolls or on gentle rises in grasslands.

Sharp-tailed grouse display behavior is quite unique and exciting to witness. It involves rapid foot stomping, rapid tail vibrations (tail rattling), inflation of purple air sacs, and aggressive face-off behavior with other males. Some males get quite aggressive and even leap several feet in the air to face their opponent. The rapid foot stomping can be heard up to a mile and sometimes a little farther during calm conditions.

Males typically attend only one lek each year and usually return to the same lek year after year. The females may actually visit several leks, carefully watching the males strut their stuff before selecting a suitable mate. After breeding, hens won’t visit a lek again unless her nest is destroyed. Most hens will initiate a nest within several days after breeding and within several miles of the lek they visited for breeding. Nests are usually found in residual grass or sometimes under a small shrub such as western snowberry and clutches typically contain 14 dull brown eggs. Incubation begins before the last one or two eggs are laid and continues for 23 days. As the breeding season winds down in June, the males lazily loaf through the summer until the next breeding season. Hens, however, remain very busy with nesting and brood-rearing activities; they receive no help from the males.

The future of prairie grouse in South Dakota is primarily dependent upon prairie habitat. Their presence is an indicator of a functioning prairie ecosystem. Sharp-tailed grouse are dependent upon grasslands for nearly all of their annual life cycle needs. Although weather can have an influence, habitat quantity and quality have the primary influence over grouse distribution and abundance. Unfortunately, mass conversion of grassland to cropland has reduced the distribution of sharp-tailed grouse. It is critical that we work together to preserve prairie grassland habitat and continue to learn and monitor this species.

Currently there is a biological consulting firm that is conducting a three-year research study on potential impacts of wind energy development on grouse in Grant County. These biologists, with the assistance of Game, Fish and Parks staff, are conducting lek surveys and trapping hens in order to fit them with backpack radio transmitters. Researchers will then monitor those grouse and document habitat use, survival, and reproduction. We certainly want to thank all of the landowners who have given permission for access to their lands to conduct lek surveys and grouse trapping activities. This is a unique opportunity to be able to collaborate with so many partners to investigate potential impacts of wind energy development. In the meantime, if you have a chance to witness grouse stomping their feet on their dancing grounds, it’s well worth getting up early!