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What About Sage Grouse

Photo: Sage Grouse
Male sage grouse fan their tail feathers and inflate their gular air sacs during the spring courtship ritual.

Graphic: Background Information

The greater sage grouse–also known as the sage cock, sage hen, sage chicken, and formerly, western sage grouse–is the largest member of a family of hen-like terrestrial birds known as grouse. At one time, Washington State had an abundant population of sage grouse. Hunting, loss of habitat because of expanding farm lands and other human development, and devastating wildfires have reduced the population of these birds to fewer than 1,500 birds. The greater sage grouse currently is a state-threatened species and a federal candidate species.

What do sage grouse look like?
The greater sage grouse is about 25 to 30 inches long and has short rounded wings, a blackish colored belly, and long pointed tail feathers. The male sage grouse possesses a yellow comb above its eyes and a large white collar-like patch on its breast that conceals what are called gular air sacs. These sacs inflate during the male's elaborate courtship ritual in the spring. For most of the year, the male and female are both colored a mottled brown, black, and white. The adult male weighs from 5 to 7 pounds. Female birds average about 3 pounds. Females don't have either the yellow comb or the white breast patch.

How do sage grouse live?
Sage grouse are herbivores. They eat soft plants, primarily big sagebrush. Big sagebrush is essential to the lives of sage grouse. Throughout their lives, sage grouse are found in or near dense stands of sagebrush. Female birds nest on the ground under the shrub and seek cover from predators and weather beneath it.

From fall through spring the leaves and more succulent stems of big sagebrush make up from 90 to 100 percent of the bird's diet. During summer and early fall, the birds leave the dense sage and move to scattered patches of sagebrush found near seeps, streams, or irrigated fields where they eat green forbs and insects, both of which are high in protein and allow rapid growth of young chicks.

One of the most interesting aspects about sage grouse is nearly complete reliance on sagebrush. Their habitat requirements are so specific that they are frequently referred to as "sagebrush obligates." That is, these birds cannot survive in areas where the shrub, with which they share their name, has been removed.

During the spring courtship ritual, male birds are found in leks, strutting and emitting popping sounds from the gular air sacs located in their chests. They lift and fan their tail feathers something like a peacock.

Where do sage grouse live?
Greater sage grouse once were common and widely distributed from southern British Columbia through central and eastern Washington and Oregon. But the greater sage grouse now occurs only from central and eastern Washington south to southeastern Oregon. Their range corresponds closely with the availability of sagebrush. The reduction of sage grouse in Washington has been linked to the removal of sagebrush over large areas for agricultural and other purposes. Lewis and Clark reportedly saw abundant sage grouse near the mouth of the Snake River on their exploration of the lower Columbia Basin in 1805 and 1806. British naturalist David Douglas also reported seeing large flocks of sage grouse near Priest Rapids in the 1820s

Graphic: Shrub Steppe Logo

Graphic: Notes... "Science is constructed of facts as a house is of stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house." Henri Poincare

Keep in mind this fact sheet is intended to be used only as background information to support your effort to encourage inquiry-based science, which parallels the way scientists uncover knowledge and solve problems.

Graphic: Suggested Activities

1. Science: Check out the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website for a current listing of federal and state priority habitats and species and state species of concern. Have students research these other species with similar habitat preference to the greater sage grouse and prepare a profile of the species. Compare and contrast habitat requirements of sage grouse with that of other "sagebrush obligate species." What is being done (needs to be done) to preserve this unique species?

2. Language Arts: Research the status of the greater sage grouse and its classification as a state-threatened species, and write a persuasive article that could be submitted to your local newspaper to convince the public that it is important to help preserve sage grouse habitat in order to prevent the sage grouse from becoming extinct in Washington State.

3. Social Studies: Research how a designation of threatened species or species of concern impacts private landowners, especially farmers, by looking at maps to determine areas populated with the species. Research shrub-steppe areas, and find these areas on the map. Compare land ownership (public vs. private) size of areas that contain sage grouse. Assess whether the "key" to sage grouse survival in Washington State lies in the hands of public or private landowners.

4. All areas: Invite a representative from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to come speak to the class about their role in protecting species of concern.

Graphic: Other Resources

  1. Amazing Birds (Eyewitness Juniors), 1990. Alexandra Parsons, Knopf, New York.
  2. Birds (National Audubon Society First Field Guides), 1998. Scott Weidensaul, Scholastic Books, New York.
  3. The Birders Handbook, 1988. Paul Ehrlich, David Dodkin, Darryl Wheye, Simon and Schuster, New York.
  4. Crinkleroot's Guide to Knowing the Birds, 1997. Jim Arnosky, Aladdin Paperbacks, New York.
  5. Habitat Selection by Sage Grouse Hens During the Breeding Season in South-Centeral Washington, 1995. Colin Sveum, Master's Thesis, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon.
  6. Inventory and Monitoring of Wildlife Habitat, 1986. Cooperrider, A.Y., R.J. Boyd, and H.R. Stuart, eds. 1986. U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management Service Center, Denver, Colorado.
  7. National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America: Revised and Updated, 1999. Jon Dunn, National Geographic, Washington, D.C.
  8. Ornithology (Real Kids Real Science Books), 1994. Ellen Doris, Thames & Hudson, New York.
  9. The Peterson Filed Guide Series: A Field Guide to Western Birds, 1941. Roger Tory Peterson, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.
  10. Sage Grouse on the Yakima Training Center: Part I, Summary of Field Studies Conducted from 1989 to 1996, 1998. L.L. Cadwell, M. A. Simmons, J.Morse, PNNL-11910, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Washington.
  11. The Western Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus phaios) on the Yakima Training Center of Central Washington: A Case Study of a Declining Species and the Military, 1991. Lynda A. Hofmann, Master's thesis, Central Washington University, Ellensburg, Washington.

Graphic: Web Sites...

  1. Natureworks Sage Grouse -
  2. USGS Sage Grouse -
  3. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife of the Status of Sage Grouse -

Graphic: Acknowledgments

Initial development and printing was funded by the Partnership for Arid Land Stewardship (PALS). Project Manager: Karen Wieda. Written by: Lynn Fulton, Columbia School District. Series Editor: Georganne O'Connor; Design: WinSome Design.

Graphic: Shrub Steppe Ecology Series


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