Follow the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society into the mysterious world of Spring leks.
Join the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society – sharptails.org
The days are longer and the sun is noticeably closer to the cold soil in the Midwest. The ground is thawing and the birds are chirping. It’s spring, and the Minnesota parklands are alive. Sandhill cranes have begun to show up, robins are once again moving into neighborhoods and the gallinaceous birds that call Minnesota home have started their annual mating rituals.
One of those mating rituals is special, and it’s the dance of the sharp-tailed grouse. There’s nothing quite like visiting a prairie grouse lek — it’s something I look forward to every spring.
With aid from the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, the Department of Natural Resources has blinds set up on several leks across the state where people can view the mating ritual of the sharp-tailed grouse. Other places like the Nature Conservancy and some of the Federal Wildlife Refuges have blinds set up for sharpies and prairie chickens as well. Getting into a lek is as simple as visiting www.sharptails.org to find the areas where blinds are located, and calling the numbers listed to reserve your date in a blind.
Waking early is always a chore, but it’s more than worthwhile when that first “coo” is heard. The action starts at daybreak, so you’ll want to sneak into the blind in the dark. As soon as the sun starts to think about peeking, the birds fly in. You’ll hear their wing beats first, then the clucks and coos. Females will surround the lek, while males will take center-stage to establish who has the best dance moves. The males will stomp rapidly on the frosty ground while rubbing their two primary tail feathers together, which makes a very loud clicking sound. They fill and deflate their bright purple air sacs, which makes a deep gulping sound. They coo, cluck, purr, and fly around picking fights with other males. Their bright yellow eye tiffs stand out as the sun hits the prairie. It’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced, and the show takes place literally yards in front of your face. Birds have even been known to land on top of the blinds.
I’ve watched sharpies dance for many years and it never gets old. Every time I experience it, I notice something new or quirky about these amazing birds. I have my fears, however. We’re losing much of our native prairie, and the bird numbers are declining. Things like monoculture, lack of re-enrollment in CRP and the lack of shearing and burning are of concern. Also, the lack of workers at times within the DNR or the lack of volunteers has caused many blinds to either break or simply not get placed on a lek. We need members, we need like-minded folks and we need volunteers to keep this tradition alive and to help this bird thrive.
My hope is that with enough exposure, future generations will be able to experience what I consider to be the greatest show on earth … the dance of the sharptail.