Sage Grouse

The sage-grouse are the two species in the bird genus Centrocercus. They are the largest grouse from temperate North America. Adults have a long, pointed tail and legs with feathers to the toes. Like in most Galliformes, there is pronounced sexual dimorphism.

Centrocercus species are notable for their elaborate courtship rituals. Each spring males congregate on leks and perform a "strutting display." The male puffs up a large, whitish air sack on its chest, makes a soft drumming noise, and struts around with his tail feathers displayed and air sack puffed up. Groups of females observe these displays and select the most attractive males to mate with. Only a few males do most of the breeding. Males perform on leks for several hours in the early morning and evening during the spring months between February and April. Leks are generally open areas adjacent to dense sagebrush stands, and the same lek may be used by grouse for decades.

Hens build nests and lay and incubate their eggs under the cover of sagebrush. The hen uses grass and forbs between patches of sagebrush for additional cover.

Chicks can walk as soon as they are hatched and are able to fly short distances within two weeks. Within five weeks they are able to fly longer distances.

Populations of sage grouse are in decline due to environment loss and decline of the pristine plains environments it requires to mate. The sage grouse is found in significant numbers within only half of the states comprising its original territories. The Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and other organizations have petitioned to list the grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

In March 2010 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) concluded that greater sage-grouse are warranted for protection as "threatened" under the U.S. federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). However the USFWS also concluded that immediate listing was "precluded" by higher listing priorities for other jeopardized species. Thus they designated the species a "Level 8 Candidate" for addition to the list of threatened species at some future date. Their finding is being litigated by groups contending the species should immediately receive protections under the ESA.

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) investigated some of the reasons for the declining sage-grouse population. Researchers observed cattle who share grazing land with the sage-grouse. They found that cattle, after consuming about 40% of the tussocks in between sagebrush bushes, will continue to consume the tussocks growing underneath the sagebrush, thereby destroying the nesting habitat for the sage-grouse. In order to preserve the population of sage-grouse, ranchers can monitor the rate at which cattle consume the tussocks in between sagebrush bushes. Once cattle have consumed around 40% of the tussocks in between bushes, researchers ask that ranchers move their cattle to new grazing trail.

The specific epithet is from another Greek word, 'oura', plus 'phasianos', pheasant. The noun 'pheasant' was originally applied to a bird that was native to the valley of the Phasis River (now the Rioni River), which is located in Georgia. In the time of Lewis and Clark the word 'pheasant' stood for "a genus of gallinaceous birds," according to lexicographer Noah Webster (1806), and the explorers often used it in that sense. 'Gallinaceous' then referred to "domestic fowls, or the gallinae"; the family Galliformes (Latin 'gallus', cock, and 'forma', shape) now includes pheasants, grouse, turkeys, quail, and all domestic chickens. Lewis and Clark are credited with the discovery of five gallinaceous birds in addition to the sage grouse: the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, the dusky grouse, Franklin's grouse, the Oregon ruffed grouse, and the mountain quail.

There are two species:
  •  Gunnison grouse, Centrocercus minimus
  •  Greater sage-grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus
The Mono Basin population may represent a third species.

They are also collectively known as sagehen, sage grouse, sage cock, sage chicken or cock of the plains. The sagehen is the mascot of the Pomona College and Pitzer College athletic teams of Claremont, California.