Bina: All puffed up and no place to go
April 5, 2012
Males were puffing out their chests, stretching out their necks and strutting in such a volatile manner they looked like they were trying to choke down field mice.
No, I wasn’t at a popular bar on a weekend night – where men also may get into fights to impress females – but I was spying on the courtship escapades of greater sage grouse during a sexy sunrise on private land near Kremmling.
The females, plump and plain, quietly observed the antics of their male counterparts out of harm’s way, then chose the one male who proved his prowess among all the others.
That male proceeded to oblige many of his female admirers. Eventually, another male in the hierarchy would step up to the breeding plate.
It was 6:30 a.m., and with the aid of a spotting scope, I sat shotgun in a Colorado Parks and Wildlife truck and witnessed the dancing.
We heard their songs in the morning mist – vocal water droplets. The males would literally drum their feet on the earth, puffing out their white feather-covered air sacs, cowling like the collars of royal wardrobes. Their postures were erect, tail feathers pointed straight up like spikes, fanning behind them in peacock-like fashion.
Who wouldn’t be impressed?
At one point, two males faced off, their back feathers lowered. Soon after, feathers and wings flailed in a confused tangle.
When they were done, I couldn’t tell who the victor was, but I had a feeling those feathered females knew.
Upon arrival to our viewing spot, my guides Mike Crosby and Michelle Cowardin of Colorado Parks and Wildlife promptly counted the number of males and females. After several counts, they settled on 24 males and 10 females. There have been as many as 56 males observed there, Crosby said.
Cowardin spotted one particular female strutting and displaying just like the boys. I like to think she was mocking them.
We witnessed a few male sage grouse off on their own, looking dejected as they wandered away from the action.
“They either got their butts kicked, or they didn’t feel like they were getting very much success today,” Crosby said.
I thought, ‘Chin up birds!’ There’s always tomorrow to impress the girls.
Mating rituals at this particular lek, which is what these established breeding grounds are called, started in March and would likely take place every early morning through May.
Crosby guessed the lek we visited may have been successful for hundreds of years, with generations of birds returning to it each spring just as their ancestors did.
Upon courtship and mating, the females lay their clutch of eggs typically miles from the lek, in a place they’ve deemed safe from predators in the past.
If their nest doesn’t make it for some reason, they have the option to return to the lek a second time that same spring to try again.
It’s these migratory travels to leks and nesting areas that make sage-grouse a “landscape species,” and “fragmentations” along the way, such as powerlines, homes, dogs, highways, oil and gas exploration, can affect breeding. Development displaces sage brush, which can make up as much as 100 percent of the bird’s diet during winter. It’s these reasons sage-grouse populations are declining in the West.
“Sagebrush is full of volatile oils, so it’s really amazing they can digest and utilize sagebrush,” Crosby said.
Parks and Wildlife conservation easements on private lands, like that of the habitat we saw, protect 11,700 acres of sage-grouse habitat in Grand County.
Back at the lek, as I witnessed the male birds swashbuckling their way toward ensuring the species survives for another year, I couldn’t help but think about their oblivion – to the number of committees formed in their name, the hours of meetings about them, the regulatory bureaucracy, the dollars spent on conservation easements, on public scoping periods, the sheer controversy over their potential listing as threatened and endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
If those birds only knew of the attention paid to them in the West, would their chests swell even more? Would they boom even louder and show off their tail feathers not from the lowland sage, but from the highest of mountain peaks?
I asked Crosby, what would really happen if there were no more sage grouse?
It would be a sad day, not just because of the loss of spring entertainment at sunup, but because it would be another sign of the weakening of the web of life.
Work protecting sage grouse is work that benefits sage lands, and a number of other species depend on this sagebrush sea of the West.
“It would have a spiritual effect – on man as well -for losing a component of the system,” Crosby said simply.
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