TWIN FALLS — David Musil, a senior wildlife biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, has given countless presentations over this 32-year career on the life history of sage grouse — also known as sage hens and sage chickens — and other grouse species in Idaho.
Musil wrote the following compilation of facts from personal observations and scientific literature:
- Sage grouse are found nowhere else in the world but right here in the Great Basin of the Intermountain West. Where there is sagebrush, there likely is sage grouse.
- Male sage grouse weigh 6 pounds and females 3 pounds. The life span is generally three to five years for males and five to seven years for females.
- Sage grouse eat sagebrush for 100% of their diet during the winter and gain weight on it.
- As the desert greens up in the spring, they switch to young grass tips, clovers, and plants with a milky latex-like Chinese lettuce, hawksbeard, and dandelions.
- They do not have a muscular gizzard like chickens and pheasants so they do not select seeds and grains for food nor peck grit.
- During the first 2 weeks after hatching, sage grouse chicks eat insects like grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, and ants. This high protein diet helps them to grow quickly. Later in the summer, they begin eating leafy plants and eventually switch to sagebrush in the winter.
- Sage grouse gather on “leks” or breeding grounds in the spring and the males have an elaborate display called “strutting”. Females select males for mating based on their feather patterns and vocalizations and will frequent several leks being bred by several males.
- The most unique part of a male’s display is the plopping sound created by forcing air quickly out of pouches in their chest along with a single noted whistle mixed in. Their breast feathers are stiff and make a swishing sound as they drag their flight feathers across them during the display. The display lasts only a couple seconds but is repeated continuously while females are on the lek. Males also strut around while fanning their tails defending their living room-sized territory on the lek.
- Squabbles between neighboring males include posturing, pushing, biting, wrestling, and striking each other with the hard wrist on the leading edge of their wings. sage grouse, as with all grouse species, do not have spurs as chickens and turkeys do. The vast majority of fights end before serious injury occurs but males are occasionally bloodied. At the end of a morning, males leave the leks together, day roost as groups in sagebrush cover, then return to the leks either at dusk or pre-dawn.
- After a female is bred, she scratches a small bowl in the dirt under a sagebrush and lays seven to 11 eggs over a 10-to-13 day period usually within 5 miles of the lek she was bred on. Once a complete clutch is laid, she incubates the eggs for 27 days, taking breaks to eat and defecate once at predawn and once after dusk.
- If a female loses her nest, she is less than 25% likely to re-nest, unlike pheasants that will re-nest several times in a season when unsuccessful.
- Within an hour of the chicks hatching, the hen leads her brood away from the nest. They follow the moist ground conditions into higher elevations as the desert dries during the summer. These areas provide succulent vegetation rich with insects.
- Depending on the landscape, some sage grouse return to the breeding grounds to winter or stay in their summer range all winter before returning to the leks in late winter or early spring. Some populations have different summer, winter, and breeding ranges, while other populations stay year-round in the same area.