Lori Fox | Special to the News
Single and looking for love? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. The Yukon’s sharp-tailed grouse is the little-known pickup artist of the avian world.
The sharp-tailed grouse is most often thought of as a prairie bird, says Environment Yukon biologist Mike Suitor, and is actually the provincial bird of Saskatchewan. While they are most common in that province and in Alberta, they live in low-densities in Yukon’s “burn belt,” where they prefer “big, open swaths of country” all the way up to Inuvik, says Suitor. The largest concentrations are in the Dawson City area.
While the casual hiker could easily confuse the sharp-tailed grouse with its more common northern cousin, the spruce grouse, it is much shyer and more cautious, and doesn’t allow humans to approach it the same way spruce grouse do. They are much better flyers than other species, with a short tail that, as their name suggests, comes to sharp point with a distinct white flash that can be seen when the birds are passing overhead.
However, what makes the sharp-tail particularly unique among Yukon’s game birds is its dramatic and unusual mating rituals. In short, the birds dance.
Unlike spruce grouse, the short-tail is a communal breeder, says Suitor. Starting late March, the males gather together at a predetermined mating area, referred to as a lek. Breeding doesn’t actually occur until mid-April or May, but the males need to arrive early in order to establish dominance over each other, forming little arenas.
The strongest, most dominant males get the best lekking positions, which is usually a slightly higher mound or otherwise more visible spot than less dominant males, says Suitor.
These leks are of special interest to biologists because they are used again and again, year after year, says Suitor. Leks which were documented in the Dawson-area in the 1970s are still in use today, 40-plus years later.
Once the lek is established, males begin a furious display to show off their fitness as mates, says Suitor. They arch their wings and drop their heads, flashing their white, arrow-shaped tail, turning in tight circles while inflating a pair of bright purple sacs behind their cheeks, while they strut, bow and bob.
They attract females to the lek by “drumming” their feet and “clicking,” an unusual adaptation which creates a sound by vibrating one feather over another in a flicking motion, not unlike how crickets chirp. When all the males are gathered on the lek, this come-hither mating call can be heard up to two kilometres away, Suitor says.
This combination of singing and dancing — coupled with tufts of startlingly yellow crests of feather that look a bit like badly-plucked eyebrows — might look strange and even a bit comical to a human observer, but for sharp-tailed grouse females it’s downright sexy. Essentially, it’s Dirty Dancing for birds with every male sharp-tail trying to be Patrick Swayze.
“When the females start to show up,” says Suitor, “the males go bezerk.”
In the midst of this testosterone-driven show-boating, females visit the arenas, observing the performances and then selecting the male she deems the best specimen breed with, usually only one of a handful of dominant males who are the biggest birds with the best colours. While copulation has never been directly observed in the Yukon within the lekking arena itself, Suitor notes that it “might be occurring.”
While all of this seems like a rather gentlemanly way of seeing who gets the girl — and perhaps even, from a human perspective, a curiously feminist one, given how much power of choice the females have in the process — it’s not all courting, bowing and showmanship says Suitor. The displays are all about dominance, with subordinate males, who are usually smaller and younger specimens, expected to give the top ones a wide berth and submit when approached. If the interaction doesn’t go the way the dominant birds want things can get violent, with the males clawing and slashing at each other with their talons, like a cock fight.
“If the (subordinate) doesn’t respond the way the (dominant bird) thinks it should, they will go into full-on attack mode,” says Suitor. “They can badly injure or even kill each other.”
After the breeding season, the lek disperses and females go off to nest alone, without any help from the males. Eggs usually hatch in the first week of June, weather depending, says Suitor.
Females are smaller and plainer than males, with a simple brown and black plumage pattern that looks a bit like the coloration of a tabby cat. This pattern allows them to be extremely well camouflaged in their environment and protects them from predators, such as foxes. Females are actually so stealthy that they’re hard to spot even during the breeding season, when they’re all gathered together.
“Often, you have no idea the females are even on the lek,” says Suitor.
The females are so good at hiding, says Suitor, that the only reason they have been able to study them in any depth at all is with the use of radio transmitters, which allow researchers to pinpoint and track their location during nesting season.
“The females just plain disappear,” he says. “They’re an extremely cryptic bird…. You could almost step on top of them and not even know they’re there.”
During the spring, the grouse are largely carnivorous, dining on insects. After the eggs have hatched and the nestlings are grown, that diet switches over to a more omnivorous one that includes berries and seeds. The hatchlings grow quickly, and by late summer the chicks join up with other young birds, forming new broods. By fall, the birds are fully grown and ready to spend the winter among the willows in the subalpine, where they gather in groups of 100 of more. All in all, most of these birds will spend most of their life within three to four kilometres of the lek site they were conceived at, says Suitor.
While the sharp-tailed grouse is not a threatened species, understanding the Yukon population is especially important, Suitor says, because the species inhabits such a distinct territory in the North, with populations relatively isolated from each other. Populations in some areas of British Columbia are on the decline, largely due to habitat loss and human intrusion.
Short-tail populations in the Yukon tend to cycle up and down naturally, says Suitor, just as hare and lynx populations do, but it’s important to keep studying them to understand these cycles. There’s still a lot about sharp-tail behaviour to learn, Suitor says, with large gaps in our understanding of this less-common northern species.
“Sharp-tailed grouse inhabit a very unique biological niche,” says Suitor. “That’s what makes them so cool.”
“We’re still building our knowledge.”
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