Sage grouse are the largest of the North American grouse species. Males can weigh up to eight pounds and have black throats with white collars, yellow-orange eyebrows, and spike-like tail feathers that fan out during the mating ritual. Immature birds and females have mottled brown throats and breasts. Both genders blend in well with Nevada’s muted landscape.
In Nevada, sage grouse are found from valley floors to high mountain meadows and ridges, but are typically tough to spot. The species builds nests in depressions on the ground and relies on sagebrush for both food and cover.
Sage grouse feed exclusively on sagebrush during winter; in other seasons they feed on leaves, blossoms, and other plant parts. During late spring and early summer, sage grouse also eat insects such ants, beetles, and butterfly larvae, which are particularly important for newly hatched grouse.
During the breeding or strutting ritual, male sage grouse puff out their bright yellow throat sacs—which are bordered with white feathers—flare their sharply pointed tail feathers, and strut in an impressive display around the lekking ground in an attempt to attract females. Sage grouse continue their strutting on and off for an hour or two after sunrise. The breeding season typically begins in mid-March and lasts through mid-May.
Leks, or breeding grounds, are generally the best areas to get the most accurate counts of sage grouse. The number of birds that show up varies—some leks may draw only two male sage grouse, while others may draw as many as 250. Adult sage grouse often return to the same leks year after year, vying for the dominant position.
The peak attendance of females at leks usually follows the peak attendance of males. This normally occurs during the first week or two of April. Sage grouse are a “landscape scale” species and require vast areas to carry out their life history needs. Individuals from some populations can move as much as 30-50 miles between seasonal habitats.
Sage Grouse Conservation
Sage grouse were historically abundant across Nevada and the West. However, because of the diminishing expanse of sagebrush habitat due to development, agricultural expansion, fire, invasive weeds, and other factors, the species has been deemed warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act. A Sagebrush Ecosystem Council was recently formed to implement a strategy for precluding the listing. For more information on the Sagebrush Ecosystem Program, click HERE.