The Prairie Dancers

February 15, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

Grouse in the spring

Grouse in the spring

I  like the emergence of spring on the prairie to an annual visit to Yellowstone National Park – spread over the span of a month.

It starts with the arrival of giant Canada geese, already paired off and ready to start nesting when ice and snow are nearly gone. Canada geese are a sure sign that spring will come.

One sure sign that spring is here is the appearance of crocus or pasque flowers accenting the pale brown still-dormant grasses of North Dakota’s prairie. The light purple crocus flowers seem perfectly mixed with a symphony of new songs and dances that are part of nature’s spring concert.

One performer that takes center stage is the sharp-tailed grouse, which brings a mixture of song and dance second to none.

Dancing grouse

Male sharptails begin converging on dancing grounds in late winter or early spring, kind of like ballplayers showing up for spring training. The real action, however, begins in early to mid-April, when male grouse do more than just gather at the dancing ground. When male grouse begin to dance vigorously, it’s a sign that means there’s no turning back from the new season. Spring is here.

Grouse in their dancing ritual

Grouse in their dancing ritual

Why do sharp-tailed grouse dance? It’s a good question. The most common response from other biologists is that dancing grounds, called leks, are areas where male and female grouse gather. The scene is kind of like a gymnasium at a junior high dance. The boys tend to gather in one section and the girls in another.

And something makes the boys dance, a colorful display of extended wings, pounding feet and odd sounds. They start and stop abruptly as if involved in a game of musical chairs, and contain their activity within an invisible boundary that bears defending if another male should enter.

Provided the habitat remains intact, leks are used year after year. It’s likely that some in North Dakota have attracted sharptails for hundreds of years. These birds typically gather twice each day, early in the morning and late in the evening, until all the females have chosen a mate.

After mating takes place, females will lay approximately 12 reddish brown eggs and 21 days later a self-sufficient young grouse will emerge, feeding on a variety of insect seeds and berries. Within 10 days juvenile grouse are able to fly, and within three months their coloration will resemble that of their parents.

Viewing dancing grouse

Male grouse sparring for breeding rights

Male grouse sparring for breeding rights

I’ve spent time in aspen forests listening to the early morning drumming of ruffed grouse. It is a beautiful display, but I consider the visual stimulation of a lek-full of dancing grouse second to none.

Fortunately, grouse viewing isn’t reserved for biologists and researchers alone. With the cooperation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department publicizes observation blinds which may be reserved for photographing or viewing dancing grouse during this grand event that signals spring’s arrival.

Following is a list of observation blind locations and reservation information.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has an observation blind at Lonetree Wildlife Management Area southwest of Harvey. Call (701) 324-2211 for reservations.

Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, 8315 Hwy. 8, Kenmare, ND 58746; phone (701) 848-2722.

Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, Box 578, Kenmare, ND 58746; phone (701) 385-4046.

Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge, 12000 353rd St. SE, Moffit, ND 58560; phone (701) 387-4397.

Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge, 7745 11th St. SE, Pingree, ND 58476; phone (701) 285-3341.

Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge, 17705 212th Ave. NW, Berthold, ND 58718; phone (701) 468-5467.

J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, 681 Salyer Road, Upham, ND 58789; phone (701) 768-2548.


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