Since my earliest days on the ranch, I’ve regularly seen coveys of Sharptailed grouse, Tympanuchus phasianellus though my folks and the neighbors usually referred to them as “prairie chickens.” The term probably dates from pioneer times because the chubby birds resemble chickens in size, habits and sounds. No doubt they were among the easiest game for settlers to hunt, providing a chicken for practically every empty pot.
And several types of chicken-like fowl native to the prairies made identification even more confusing. Sharptailed grouse are spotted brown and white and have short, pointed tails. Among their relatives are Spruce grouse, Blue, Ruffed, Gunnison Sage and Greater Sage Grouse; White-tailed, Willow and Rock ptarmigan and Lesser and Greater Prairie Chickens. All once thrived in North America. Ptarmigan live mostly in the north and northwest. Prairie Chickens prefer open prairie but the rest seem to like prairie cut with gullies where shrubs grow for cover and food sources. All are well adapted to the extremes of heat and cold the prairie offers but their numbers have been greatly reduced by humans and their accompanying guns and predatory pets (dogs and cats).
In Windbreak, I wrote about butchering and eating a grouse that we’d accidentally hit on the highway.
I asked George to stop, caught it–it was bleeding– wrung its neck and then realized I had just committed an illegal act beside a busy highway. We brought it home and Jim and Mavis were here so we added three game hens to the roasting pot and had the grouse for supper. I had to endure a lot of hilarity about eating roadkills but I told them that’s the only way we poor ranchers survive.
-- Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, October 25, page 34
That brief reference fails to show my appreciation of the sharptails, either as residents of the prairie and part of the work force that conserves grasslands or as dinner. The mention does point to one of the dangers of life for the grouse, though I don’t see as many grouse dead on the highway as rabbits, skunks, coyotes and foxes.
Sharptailed grouse forage on the ground in spring and summer, eating mostly leaves, green shoots and flowers along with a few insects. Anyone familiar with the way chickens pursue grasshoppers and other bugs will be instantly charmed to see grouse leaping in the air to snatch flying bugs in the same way. In summer, more than 50 percent of the grouse diet may be grass, according to birdweb.org, though insects and especially grasshoppers are an important food. The diet of young grouse, say some sources, may be as much as 90% bugs. Experts indicate flower parts may make up 25 percent of the breeding-season diet, while in fall grouse eat seeds, leaves, berries, waste grain, buds, and flowers. In winter, sharptails often roost and graze in shelter under trees and bushes; significant winter foods include the dried fruit, seeds and buds of willow, cottonwood, chokecherry, plum, buffaloberry, juneberry, birch, aspen, rose and juniper.
Apparently open water is not essential to the grouse, which is good since many parts of our prairie don’t offer it. Instead the grouse satisfy their requirements from their food. Early in the season the birds cluster in groups of 5 to 10, perhaps families; later they join into larger coveys.
Like the better-known Greater prairie-chicken, sharptailed males dance and coo as the mating season begins; authorities say this causes the females to initiate the breeding cycle. Males return to the same dancing grounds, often located on open high ground each year, usually in March. There they rattle their tails, stomp their feet and display their feathers, beginning 45 minutes before sunrise and continuing for a couple of hours afterward. Females stroll through the furiously performing males, selecting one with which to mate. One source, landhelp.info, says females are “polygamous and probably promiscuous.”
Sharptailed grouse usually lay a five to seventeen eggs in a shallow depression in the earth under a shrub or thick clump of grass, often lining the nest with grass, leaves, or ferns. The young leave the nest shortly after hatching, but the hen continues to lead them to feeding areas.
Grouse look ungainly in flight, like balloons with wings, but hunters and other experts say that for a short distance they are able to escape hawks like the peregrine in horizontal flight. Often we spot the covey because one or more of them is perched in the top of the junipers, where the branches appear too slender to hold them, heads erect as they watch us. When one takes flight, they all do, chuckling and clucking in alarm. The flapping of their wings is miniature thunder in the sky as they head for the nearest cover, a bunch of trees or tall prairie grass.
Once, a covey landed on the power lines leading to our house. From the kitchen window I watched a routine that had me snorting with laughter as the birds tried desperately to balance themselves on the wire. Wings out, they leaned ahead and back as the wire swung madly. If one achieved balance, the one next to it flapped off-kilter and they staggered into one another. One by one they gave up and flew into the junipers until only one was left, still fluttering and unable to achieve balance.
My uncle and my father often exchanged reports of seeing the grouse, pleased to have them as part of their ranches’ wildlife. The prairie between the two ranches seemed to offer just what the grouse need in food, concealment and privacy. For winter shelter, they like groves of trees like the windbreaks around our houses, but in summer they range widely over the mostly treeless prairie. In winter they often roost in or under trees or deliberately allow themselves to be covered in snow. Often I have found round holes under our windbreak trees with wingmarks on each side. When they are ready to emerge, the grouse simply row upward with their wings and fly out the top of a drift.
Natural grouse predators are many; hawks, eagles, owls and coyotes all make a meal of the sharptails when they can. We often find flattened circles of grouse feathers near the windbreak trees, as killers no doubt creep close while the grouse are sleeping or eating.
Though natural predators take their toll, it’s humans who do the most damage to the sharptailed grouse, as they do to all other wildlife. Since two houses have been built between the ranches originally owned by the Hasselstrom brothers, I’ve been watching the animals’ habits. John and Harold used to compare notes on the herd of whitetail deer that would move east down our draw then circle through an area of small waterholes and trees and graze past my uncle’s place a few days later. “You should be seeing that old doe and her bunch today,” one of them would say. Now we rarely see the deer, because the new houses are directly in the path they used to travel. I often hear a dog barking at one of the homes but no stray dogs have shown up here, so perhaps it is not free to chase wildlife. My lessee, who lives on my uncle’s former ranch, often sees a covey of 35 of more grouse, as do we, so presumably they can still navigate the distance safely.
Once upon a time, I saw a flash outside my basement study window and heard a thud. I went outside and saw a grouse huddled under an outdoor table.
A week before, I’d been in the windbreak trees when a grouse shot past me at eyebrow level and dropped to the ground under the protective cover of the thick juniper branches. A northern harrier hawk veered up and away, its hunt foiled.
So I assumed this grouse had dived under the deck for sanctuary, though I couldn’t spot a hawk. For a half hour, I kept the dogs inside so the bird could rest and recover from its fear. But when it was still tucked under the table an hour later I crept close and touched it: dead. In escaping from the hawk, it must have been unable to slow down and hit the side of the house.
I skinned the grouse and soaked it in salt water overnight to get the blood from its traumatic death out of the flesh. Dismantling the grouse the next morning, I studied its architecture: the legs were small and thin and the wings had very little flesh. The breasts were huge–musculature for that swift flight. The flesh was dark red, much darker than turkey.
Years ago, after a successful grouse hunt, we had a half dozen of the birds. We’d found them in the juniper trees in a pasture and their crops were stuffed with juniper berries. I emptied the crops and, after gutting the birds, stuffed them with the berries, adding a tart flavor to the flesh.
Since only one grouse had been killed this time, I cut it up, splitting the breast and leaving the back in one piece and the legs connected to the thighs. I rolled each piece in a mixture of egg, milk and spices and then in flour and seared it quickly in a hot fry pan. Then I placed them in a casserole, mixed milk with a can of cream of mushroom soup and baked the dish at 300 degrees for an hour and a half, until a thermometer in the breast registered 170 degrees.
Grouse does not taste like chicken. I’d compare its rich flavor to tender venison or antelope harvested correctly, without time to be afraid. The meat was so rich and tasty that I didn’t need to eat much of it to feel satisfied. I mentally apologized to the hawk who probably missed its dinner but was grateful for the opportunity to make this bird’s death into an experience.
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For more information:
For photographs, search “sharptailed grouse photos” on the internet.
www.lauraerickson.com provides videos of the grouse in their mating dance.
Several sites including www.junglewalk.com have recorded grouse sounds.
landhelp.info provides considerable information on managing resources so as to encourage wildlife on farms and ranches.
For specific information to help you identify one of the group, see www.allaboutbirds.org
Or look in a bird identification book such as The Sibley Guide to Birds, David Allen Sibley (Knopf).
I received a copy of this wonderful book for Christmas, thanks to neighbor and friend Tamara. It’s slightly possible she was tired of me calling to say, “I just saw a bird I can’t identify. It has a yellow breast and is kinda gray on top and . . .”
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