A trip to greater sage-grouse country for one of nature’s weirdest mating displays

Greater sage-grouse courtship display.

Mason Cummings.

Watching the bizarre mating rituals of an imperiled icon of the American West

It was just after 5:00 AM when we arrived at our destination in the remote sagebrush plains of northern Colorado. A chorus of deep, resonant “blooping” sounds grew louder as we walked into the darkness, and turned off our headlamps in order to avoid startling the finicky birds.

As The Wilderness Society staff from the Colorado office, we were on a mission to see the bird whose sagebrush habitat has been severely impacted by oil and gas development.

The greater sage-grouse was once an abundant bird throughout Colorado and much of the American West, but its population has declined sharply in recent years. The species continues to face numerous threats, including expansive energy development that continually degrades what’s left of its fragile sagebrush habitat.

The bird is best known for its elaborate courtship ritual, which involves bizarre, carefully choreographed chest puffing that sounds like popcorn popping inside of a large balloon. Put a large group of these birds in one place, and the cacophony of “bloops” is a truly strange experience—especially when it’s too dark to see where the sound is coming from.

In order to witness the mating ritual, we needed to be under the cover of the blind before the morning’s first light. Not only did we want to avoid frightening the increasingly rare bird from an opportunity to mate, we wanted to get a glimpse of them performing this bizarre mating dance.

We walked about a quarter mile through the darkness; with non-visual senses on overdrive trying to gain a better sense of our surroundings. Just when it seemed like we were getting “too close” to the sage-grouse chorus, we could finally make out the faint outline of a large, white structure. We had arrived at the blind.

The blind was not the claustrophobia-inducing camouflage box that birders might imagine. Rather, it was a large, conspicuous trailer with two rows of stadium seating inside, enough to comfortably accommodate 18 onlookers. Once we were settled, two large viewing doors opened up toward the lek (the site of mating rituals).

After a few short minutes the horizon began to glow, and we could make out hundreds of faint silhouettes off in the distance. As it grew brighter, we counted more than 150 males strutting around the field in full courtship display. This was likely Colorado’s largest concentration of sage grouse at any single lek.

This particular lek was not representative of the greater sage-grouse population as a whole, however. Sage-grouse numbers have dropped from an estimated 2 million in 1985 to as low as 200,000 today.

As federal agencies weigh whether to protect the sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act, individual states are pushing to manage the issue themselves. Meanwhile, oil and gas companies have already leased large portions of remaining habitat.

We were lucky to witness one of nature’s most bizarre mating rituals in such massive numbers, and the birds continued their flamboyant dance well into the morning. Just as the grouse began to slowly disperse, a small group of pronghorns wandered into the field.

It became clear that this ecosystem supports a number of species that are worth protecting. The field was surrounded by intact sagebrush nesting grounds, and I couldn’t imagine such an amazing display of wildlife taking place amidst a backdrop of oil rigs and power lines. These species depend on large expanses of open sagebrush habitat, a type of place that’s becoming more rare as development expands into even the most remote reaches of the West.

The Wilderness Society believes that greater sage-grouse protection can coexist alongside energy development if the right precautions are folded into managing our public lands. It will take a collaborative effort between federal, state and private groups across the West in order to ensure the sage-grouse’s survival.

In addition to sage-grouse, an estimated 350 species depend on a healthy sagebrush ecosystem. Protecting these areas also benefits communities who see considerable revenue from hunting and wildlife viewing each fall. It’s in everyone’s best interest to protect sagebrush habitat, and this notion will be more important than ever as diverse stakeholders weigh in on the issue.

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