Birds – Prairie Sharp Tailed Grouse

(Pediocaetes phasianellus campestris)

Called also: PIN-TAILED GROUSE ; SPECKLED OR WHITE BELLY; WILLOW GROUSE ; PRAIRIE CHICKEN; SPIKE-TAIL

Length— 7.50 to 20 inches.

Male and Female—Upper parts yellowish buff, irregularly barred and blotched with black; the shoulders streaked and the tips of wing coverts conspicuously spotted with white; crown and back of neck more finely barred than the back; no neck tufts; head of male slightly crested, and his neck has concealed reddish distensible skin; space in front of and below eye buff, like the throat; breast has V-shaped brownish marks; sides irregularly barred or spotted with blackish or buff ; underneath, including wing linings, white. Tail barred with black and buff, the central feathers longest, but shorter in female than in male; legs full feathered to the first joint of toes; bill horn color. Female smaller.

Range—Plains and prairies east of the Rocky Mountains, north to Manitoba, east to Wisconsin and Illinois, and south to New Mexico.

Season—Permanent resident, or partially migratory in cold weather.

Three variations of one species of sharp-tailed grouse greatly extend its range until in one form or another it has come to be among the best known of our western game birds; the Columbian, the true sharp-tail, and the prairie varieties not being generally separated by sportsmen either in the United States or Canada, as they are by the systematists.

A most hilarious ” dance ” that precedes the nesting season, as in the case of the pinnated grouse, begins early in spring, at the gray of dawn, when the sharp-tails meet on a hillock that very likely has been a favorite with their ancestors, too. They behave like rational fowls until suddenly a male lowers his head, distends the sacs on either side of his neck that look like oranges fastened there, ruffles up his feathers to appear twice his natural size, erects and spreads his tail, droops his wings, and, rushing across the arena, “takes the floor.” Now the ball is opened in-deed. Out rush other dancers, stamping the ground hard as their feet beat a quick tattoo; the air escaping from their bright sacs making a ” sort of bubbling crow,” quite different from the deep organ tone of the pinnated grouse ; the rustling of the vibrating wings and tail furnishing extra music. Now all join in ; at first there is dignified decorum, but the fun grows fast and furious, then still faster and still more furious ; the crazy birds twist and twirl, stamp and leap over each other in their frenzy, every moment making more noise, until their energy finally spent, they calm down into sane creatures again. They move quietly about over the well worn space (a “chicken’s stamping ground,” measuring from fifty to one hundred feet across, according to Mr. Ernest Seton Thompson), when, without warning, some male has a fresh seizure that soon starts another saturnalia. ” The whole performance reminds one so strongly of a ‘Cree dance,’ ” says Mr. Thompson, “as to suggest the possibility of its being the prototype of the Indian exercise. . . . The dancing is indulged in at any time of the morning or evening in May, but it is usually at its height before sunrise. Its erotic character can hardly be questioned, but I cannot fix its place or value in the nuptial ceremonies. The fact that I have several times noticed the birds join for a brief `set to’ in the late fall merely emphasizes its parallelism to the drumming and strutting of the ruffed grouse as well as the singing of small birds.”

After pairing, the male, in the usual selfish fashion of his tribe, allows his mate to seek some place of concealment, scratch out an excavation screened by grasses, and attend to all nursery duties, while he joins a club of loafers that most scientists consider flagrant polygamists too. From ten to sixteen eggs, very small for so large a bird, and of a brown or buff shade. with a few dark spots, hatch, after about twenty-one days of close sitting, into golden yellow, speckled chicks, admirably clothed, to escape detection from prowling hawks, as they squat in the grass. This species, too, is a conspicuous sufferer from the mowing machine and prairie fire. If farmers would only burn all their fields in autumn instead of in May and June, when birds are nesting, thousands of grouse might be spared annually.

All young grouse feed largely on insects, especially grass-hoppers, at first, but sharp-tails become almost dependent at any time on the hips of the wild rose, the stony seeds that likewise do the work of gravel being a staple every month in the year ; willow and birch browse, various seeds, cereals, and berries enlarging a long menu. Such dainty fare makes delicate, luscious flesh, so tender, indeed, that young birds falling at the aim of the sportsman’s gun have been burst asunder when they reached the ground, and their feathers loosened. With increased age the flesh grows dark and less palatable. These grouse, hunted in the same fashion that the pinnated grouse is, generally lie well to a dog. A single bird rising with a cackling cry when flushed at a point, flies swiftly straight away, now beating the wings, now sailing with them stiffly set and decurved, still cackling as it goes. Later in the year, when coveys unite to form a dense pack, the eyes, turned in all directions at once, on the perpetual lookout, it is a skilled sportsman who can steal a march on them before they run swiftly away and finally take to wing to flap and sail far, far beyond reach of his gun. When cold blasts, high winds, and deep snow drive these prairie lovers into timbered lands and sheltered ravines, a covey spends much time roosting in trees and walking along the branches, where the sharp-tails’ nature apparently undergoes a change; for it is said they are almost stupidly unsuspicious now, and will sit still and look on at the destruction of their companions. Odd that they should shun man and his habitations ! A partial migration of females to warmer, or at least more sheltered winter quarters, doubtless accounts for the variation of the species.

The Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse (Pediocaetes phasianellus campestris), also called by the various popular names by which the prairie sharp-tail is known since few see any difference between the two varieties, has its upper parts more grayish instead of yellowish buff, possibly with less conspicuous white spots on its wings and shoulders, and its whitish under parts, including flanks, marked with black U or V shaped lines. In habits there appears to be little or no difference between this variety and its prototypes ; therefore the account of the prairie sharp-tail need not be repeated. As its name implies, the region about the Columbia River is this grouse’s chosen habitat; but the northwest-ern part of the United States, including northeastern California, northern Nevada, and Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, and from west of the Rocky Mountains northward through British Columbia to central Alaska, is the area over which it is distributed. As man, whom it shuns (unlike the pinnated grouse), appears on its territory, it recedes before him into wilder, remote districts, until plains where coveys were abundant only five years ago now know them no more.

The Sharp-tailed Grouse (Pediocaetes phasianellus), a bird that never shows its dark, rich plumage within the United States, however commonly the paler, yellower prairie, and the grayer Columbian varieties of this handsome grouse are called by its name, ranges over the interior of British America to Fort Simpson, and is comparatively little known. Reversing the usual rule, the plumage of this one species grows gradually darker as the birds range northward, until the true sharp-tail has black for its prevailing color.