The annual shows that inspired Native American dancers centuries ago are underway on Washington’s grasslands, sagebrush prairies and mountain foothills.
Grouse are strutting on their stages to fan their tails and beam with gaudy colors for the breeding season before melting back into the monochrome hideaways of their habitat, what’s left of it.
Washington prairie grouse species in particular have lost huge portions of their habitat to farming, ranching and other development. The irony is that these birds were an important food source to early settlers, who found sharptails and sage grouse in flocks that could darken the sky when they flew.
But while Western states continue to confront grouse habitat issues – mostly focused on keeping sage grouse off the endangered species list – it’s the birds themselves that intrigue a few hunters and amateur and expert birders alike.
Washington has lost more grouse habitat than other states. Sage and sharp-tailed grouse numbers have declined too low to allow the fall hunting seasons that still occur in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
But the Evergreen State in some ways is a prized kingdom for wildlife biologist Mike Schroeder.
“Okanogan County is the only county in the United States that holds all seven grouse species in the lower 48,” said Schroeder, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife grouse specialist.
From the sage and sharp-tailed grouse on the prairies to the sooty, dusky, ruffed and spruce grouse of the mountains and the white-tailed ptarmigan of the alpine areas, the Evergreen State has it all.
Pheasants, chukars and valley quail are game-bird species introduced to Washington while grouse are natives entwined in the region’s heritage.
“Journals from the Lewis and Clark expedition have about 90 separate observations of grouse,” Schroeder said. “They were really fascinated by these birds. Grouse were very important as a food source in the Midwest and West.
“Native Americans have a dance, they call it the chicken dance, where they bend over at the waist and hold their arms out to mimic the sharptail males on their dancing grounds.”
The dancing sharpies sound like little jackhammers as they stop their feet and rattle their feathers.
Although they’re all grouse, each species has a unique ritual to attract mates. The prairie grouse are gregarious while the ptarmigan are monogamous.
Sage grouse males gather by the dozens on strutting grounds, called leks, where they fan their tails and flop air sacks that bulge out of their breasts. They make a sound like blobs of oil plopping into a metal vat.
Dusky grouse males don’t have leks, but several males often will come to an area within a hundred or so yards of each other to display. The males will mate with any interested female.
Ruffed grouse and spruce grouse have the smallest home ranges, Schroeder said.
Ruffed males, generally found in or near creek drainages, have staked out a few display logs on which they flap or “drum” their wings, sounding like someone in the distance trying to get a lawn mower started.
In the mountains, spruce grouse have a display that Schroeder ranks among the most amazing.
“When we see them, it’s usually just a matter of a female with a male strutting around, shaking its head and spreading its tail,” he said. “But when they’re signifying their territory to other males, they have a wing-clap display.
“They find an opening in the forest and fly through and, going in toward the ground, they raise up at the last second, clap their wings behind their backs twice – two sharp claps – before landing on the ground in full display.
“None of our other game birds brings so much to the table as the grouse during this season,” Schroeder said.
“Grouse are an icon of the open landscapes that distinguished North America. Pheasants are certainly interesting game birds, but they’re never going to be grouse,” he said.
“Sage grouse may move 20 miles or more from breeding to wintering areas – that’s a bigger a range than elk.”
Spruce grouse, also known as Franklin grouse or “fool hens,” may start displaying when there’s 3 feet of snow in April and continue into early June. The females bred early may nest in depressions, such as at the base of a tree that melt out before the rest of the snowpack.
“Only 5 percent of the country around ptarmigan might be snow-free at the time the females are laying their eggs,” Schroeder said.
“But the birds are so adapted to their habitats, they make do.”
Sage grouse are uniquely evolved to thrive, when needed, solely on the leaves of sagebrush.
Grouse are different than other birds from the ground up.
“They tend to be feathered down to their feet although it’s more subtle in various grouse and where they are,” Schroeder said.
“In winter, they have scaly feet and pectinations – scales that stick out on both sides of each toe. They work as snowshoes in winter, giving the feet a weird look. The scales fall off in spring.”
The most extreme example is in ptarmigan. Rather than pectinations, it has feathered feet all the way to its toenails during winter, making its feet about three times their normal size for getting around on snow.
Also owing to his alpine home range, the ptarmigan is the only grouse that turns white during winter to blend into its snowy surroundings.
“Japanese don’t just prize ptarmigan, they consider them national monuments,” Schroeder said.
“Europe also has partridge, chukar and pheasants, but the grouse over there are treated with a lot more prestige than they are here. You see it in their artwork and also in the type of fees people pay to hunt them. It costs thousands of dollars to hunt red grouse in Scotland.
“We’re so spoiled to be able to take these birds for granted in this region.”
While grouse are keenly adapted to the sometimes harsh landscapes of their native range, a couple of centuries apparently haven’t been enough time to become adapted to the influence of humans.
In 1934, John Townsend – the ornithologist who lends his name to the Townsend’s warbler and several other species – described vast numbers of sage grouse. They were so unafraid of humans along the Continental Divide, they were running under the party’s horses.
“We are but a blink in the tenure of the grouse and it’s possible they simply haven’t adapted to us,” said Schroeder, noting grouse declines in many portions of their range.
“These species reflect North America the way it was and in some cases the way it still is.”
And maybe the way it should be.