They Keep the Place Dancing

Sharptail cocks keep the place dancing.

At the risk of sounding too cute, we’ve named our off-grid ranch Dancing Springs Ranch. And probably not for the reason you’re thinking.

Our water comes from a spring, but emerges more trickle than dance. We wish it were otherwise, but alas, such is the dry West. Trickling Springs Ranch?

Fortunately there’s another dancing spring here, a major dance exhibition every March and April. Last year at least 15 participants showed up to compete. We haven’t counted the dancers yet this year, but they’re on stage every morning.

These are free spirits. Raw. Wild. More break dancers than ballerinas. They wear only what Nature provides. Yet this is no striptease. They’re bedecked in feathers, but this isn’t burlesque.

The dancers are sharptailed grouse, and they dance as if their lives depended on it. Because they do.

The annual grouse dance is a nuptial display designed to help the hens select the strongest, healthiest, genetically superior male for mating. The cock bird that dances best gets the girls. Lots of them. On most leks upwards of 80 percent of all hens mate with one rooster. And that cock is usually the oldest.

But how do the hens know this? It isn’t as if each male advertises its birth year on a badge. And why should it matter? Genetic superiority is why it matters.

The sharptail and its tympanic display.

All sharptails are born with the instinct to dance, but not the finesse. Each autumn the young of the year gather round the old timers who visit the spring leks (traditional dancing stages) for a tune up. This serves to show the youngsters where to find hens the next spring. It also gives them a chance to “watch this!” While their foot stomping, tail shaking, wing-spreading moves are pre-programmed, they are only perfected with practice. So the more-experienced males demonstrate. And the new dancers emulate. We suspect there are subtle differences in plumage that identify age and experience, too, things perhaps only sharptail hens can detect. And that’s what’s critical to survival of the species long term.

You see, if a male grouse’s “sex appeal” increases with age, it selects for the survival traits each new generation of sharptails needs. A three- or four-year-old cock with optimum feathers, tympanic membranes (violet neck sacs,) and ideal dance moves personifies success. He’s proven he has what it takes to evade predators and disease, find food, metabolize that food into not just muscles and energy, but superfluous feathers and energy-sapping dance moves. He displays strength, wiles, and endurance. Traits a hen’s brood can use.

Sadly, what no dancing male can provide any hen is the ability to overcome human-caused mortality. Habitat that is lost to highways, reservoirs, cities, summer homes, golf courses, farms, expansive mono-cultured crop fields, mature forests, and overgrazed grasslands cannot be offset by better nuptial displays. Sharptailed grouse can only thrive in sharptailed grouse habitat. You won’t find them in an eastern hardwood forest, a southern swamp, a southwest desert, or a Midwest soybean fields.

The sage-steppe foothills and habitat.

Habitat loss is the sharptail’s great nemesis. It has already wiped out most sharptailed grouse populations in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Dancing Springs Ranch is near the center of some of the best remaining sharptail habitat in the Northwest, the traditional range of the Columbian sharptail subspecies. Roughly half of Dancing Springs Ranch remains in fair to good condition with native sage-steppe grasslands providing the plants and insects these grouse need to raise their broods. The other half is crop fields planted with CRP grass. Part of our project here is to improve this monoculture of non-native brome grass as well as the native pastures still recovering from more than 100 years of livestock grazing.

Grazing by non-native livestock isn’t all bad. It’s annual, steady grazing over decades that degrades the habitat. Done right, grazing can actually benefit grouse. So can some agriculture. Studies in the Dakota’s have indicated that grouse numbers peak with roughly 60% of the land in native grass and brush, 40% in a mix of cereal grains like wheat, oats, sunflowers and corn. Whether or not this applies to the Columbian subspecies remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Dancing Springs Ranch is producing enough sharptails that we can hunt a few each year. Sharptail dinner is but another part of the sustainable lifestyle, of living with the land, utilizing native species instead of displacing them with domestic species. We will continue maintaining a small flock of chickens for eggs. We’ll also raise a few free-range fryers. But we want to optimize habitat for all native birds. The sharptailed grouse is just one of the keystone species.

They keep the place dancing.