Birds – Sage Grouse

(Centrocercus urophasianus)

Called also : SAGE COCK; COCK OF THE PLAINS

Length—20 to 32 inches; largest of the grouse.

Male—Upper parts ashy gray barred with brown, black, and darker gray; some white streaks on wings; tail of twenty stiff feathers graduated to a threadlike point, the central ones like back, the outer ones black and partly barred with buff; top of head and neck grayish buff. (“Neck susceptible of enormous distention by means of air sacs covered with naked, livid skin, not regularly hemispherical and lateral like those of the pinnated grouse, but forming a great protuberance in front of irregular contour; surmounted by a fringe of hairlike filaments several inches long, springing from a mass of erect, white feathers; covered below with a solid set of sharp, white, horny feathers like fish scales. The affair . . is constantly changing with the wear of the feathers.”—Dr. Elliott Coues). This neck decoration is fully displayed only at the pairing season. Fore neck black speckled with grayish ; breast gray; flanks broadly barred with blackish brown and pale buff, or sometimes mottled with black; underneath black; wing linings white.

Female—One-third smaller than male; chin and throat white; no neck decoration; a softer, shorter tail.

Range—Sage covered and sterile plains of British Columbia, Assiniboia, the two Dakotas, Nebraska, Colorado, southward to New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada; west to California, Oregon, and Washington.

Season—Permanent resident, or partly migatory at some points.

Several peculiarities make this species noteworthy; next to the turkey it is the largest game bird in the United States, as it is the largest of the grouse clan, a full grown male weighing often eight pounds, while his smaller mate may be only a little over half that weight, the size of sage fowls differing greatly. Another distinction it possesses in being the only one of the gallinaceous or scratching birds without a gizzard, what answers for one being merely a soft, membraneous bag; hence gravel, prairie rose seeds, and other hard substances are never swallowed. Because sage grouse are commonly found in regions where the bush that lends them its name abounds, there is a popular impression that its leaves are their sole diet; but while they certainly form its staple in winter, at least, immense numbers of grasshoppers, crickets, berries, grain, seeds of grasses, and leguminous plants so change the character of the bird’s flesh, ordinarily bitter and astringent, as to make it truly palatable to the fastidious in many sections where only the sharpest appetite could relish it under the sage circumstances. But even then a young bird should be drawn immediately after death.

Since the sage bush (Artemisia) grows to a height of only two or three feet, a partial migration of a winter pack sometimes becomes necessary when the plant is hopelessly buried under snow, however willing this as well as other grouse may be to plunge into shallow drifts. Intense cold, common to the high altitudes, and intense heat to the alkali regions it inhabits, blizzards or scorching winds, apparently do not affect this hardy bird. The food supply is its first consideration; after that a drink morning and evening from some clear mountain stream. At the approach of winter, coveys of seven or eight birds begin to pack into flocks, sometimes numbering a hundred, whose strong, clannish feeling leads them to live much as the Bob Whites do, though the males are no such models of the domestic virtues. Forming in a circle, the grouse squat and huddle for mutual warmth and protection, tails toward the centre of the ring, heads pointing outward to detect danger that may come from any direction. Yet they are not suspicious birds, or wild; they generally walk quietly away from. an intruder, or run and hide among the sage bushes, where, owing to the mimicry of their plumage, it is difficult indeed to detect them. Their nature is terrestrial. Flying, at the outset a laborious performance, will not be resorted to except as a last expedient. The sage cock with effort lifts his heavy body from the ground by much wing flapping; his balance is unsteady until fairly launched; but once off, on he goes, alternately flapping with five or six quick strokes, then smoothly sailing, cackling his alarm as he flies, until far beyond sight. Wheat found in the crop of a bird killed early in the morning eight miles from a cultivated field, proves to what a distance this grouse is willing to fly for a good breakfast. Mr. D. G. Elliot says it requires a heavy blow to bring a bird down, large shot being necessary to kill one; for it is capable, even if severely wounded, of carrying away large quantities of lead, and will fly a long distance, probably not dropping until life is extinct. Like the prairie hen and the sharp-tailed grouse, only one bird will flush at a time, the others lying close in concealment.

Like these birds, too, the sage cock goes through some amusing pre-nuptial performances early in spring. Inflating his large saffron colored air sacs until they rise above his head and all but conceal it, the spring feathers along the edges standing straight out, his pheasant-shaped tail spread like a great, pointed fan, the wings trailing beside ‘him, his breast rubbing the ground until often the feathers are worn threadbare, he moves around the object of his affections with mincing, gingerly steps, while the air escaping from the sacs produces a guttural, purring sound that seems to voice his entire satisfaction with himself. Notwithstanding his protestations of devotion, he leaves his mate to scratch out a nest under some sage bush or in a grass tussock, and here she confines herself very closely—for she is a model mother—for three weeks or more. Knowing how perfectly her feathers conceal her from the sharpest eyes, she remains on the nest until sometimes almost stepped on, and shows the marvelously clever tricks of protecting her chicks common to all this highly intelligent clan. It is the coyote that is her deadliest enemy. When the brood is fully able to take care of itself, the neglectful father, that has passed the early summer with other cocks as selfishly indolent as he, for the first time becomes acquainted with his children.