Skip to Content

Sharp-tailed Grouse

A medium-sized bird species that is native to North America. They have a distinctive sharp-pointed tail that is held upright during courtship displays.

An open country grouse of the north, the Sharp-tailed Grouse is related to prairie-chickens and shares the same breeding season behavior of displaying together on leks to attract a mate. Flights made by Sharp-tailed Grouse are usually short, but they can reach speeds of over forty miles per hour.

Sharp-tailed Grouse have relatively large clutches of eggs and a fairly short lifespan, although the record age for a wild bird is over 7 years. Severe winters can kill large numbers of grouse, and hawks prey on grouse as well. Conversion of native grasslands to cropland is also a significant problem for prairie grouse.

Length: 17 inches
Wing span: 25 inches


Description of the Sharp-tailed Grouse


The Sharp-tailed Grouse is a grouse similar to prairie-chickens, with mostly brownish plumage speckled with black and white.  Its tail is sharply pointed.

Males have inflatable, purplish neck sacs and yellow eye combs.


Females lack neck sacs.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles resemble adult females, but have shorter tails.


Sharp-tailed Grouse inhabit prairies, forest edges, and brushy areas.


Sharp-tailed Grouse eat seeds, leaves, and buds.


Sharp-tailed Grouse forage on the ground in summer and in trees and shrubs during winter.


Sharp-tailed Grouse are resident from Alaska south across much of Canada to the north-central U.S. The population is generally stable, except in the south where it has been declining.

Fun Facts

Male Sharp-tailed Grouse have a courtship display in which they inflate their air sacs, give a series of hoots, and stamp their feet.

Sharp-tailed Grouse sometimes roost under the snow in the winter.


The song consists of a series of cooing or hoots.  Clucking calls are also given.

Similar Species

  • Prairie-chickens are heavily barred below, and pheasants have much longer tails.


The Sharp-tailed Grouse’s nest consists of a shallow scrape lined with plant material.

Number: Usually lay 5-17 eggs.
Color: Buffy with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 23-24 days, and leave the nest shortly after hatching, though associating with the adults for some time.

Bent Life History of the Sharp-tailed Grouse

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Sharp-tailed Grouse – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.

[Current A.O.U. = Sharp-tailed Grouse]

As the specimen on which Linnaeus bestowed the type name of the species came from the Hudson Bay region, the name P. p. phaeian~eltue is now restricted to the dark-colored race, which ranges through the forested regions of northern Canada to central Alaska. Its center of abundance seems to be in the vicinity of Great Slave Lake, Mackenzie. Swainson and Richardson (1831) say that “it is found throughout the woody districts of the fur-countries, haunting open glades or low thickets on the borders of lakes, particularly in the neighbourhood of the trading-posts, where the forests have been partially cleared.” According to Major Bendire (1892) it was found breeding at Fort Rae, in latitude 630 N., and at Fort Good Hope, in the Mackenzie River Basin. MacFarlane (1908) found it breeding in the valley of the Lockhart and Anderson Rivers, where two nests were found, buL the eggs were afterwards lost. Herbert. W. Brandt says in his Alaska notes:

The sharp-tailed grouse proved to be the most common gallinaceous bird we encountered during the early stages of our dog-sled trip to Hooper Bay. We first collected it on March 22, when two handsome males were taken, but small flocks were seen from time to time during the previous day. After we reached the Koskokwuim River the birds became scarcer, and we did not see It at all along the Yukon River. The center of abundance of this grand grouse appears to be in the vicinity of Lake Minchumina, with its sheltered, scenic, birch-clad hills, that transcends in exquisite beauty any region I saw In glorious Alaska.

Nesting: The nesting habits of this grouse are apparently similar to those of its more southern relatives. The only published account of it I can find is by Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1905), as follows:

Mr. Kennicott found the nest of this bird at Fort Yukon, at the foot of a clump of dwarf willows. It was in dry ground, and In a region In which these willows abounded and were quite thickly Interspersed with other trees, especially small spruces, but no large growth. The nest Is said to have been similar to that of CuphfoaiG cupido. Mr. Lockhart also found It breeding In the same region. The nests seen by him were likewise built on a rising ground under a few small willows.

Eggs: Major Bendire (1892) describes the eggs very well, as follows:

The number of eggs to a set varies from seven to fourteen and their ground color from a fawn color with a vinaceous rufons bloom to chocolate, tawny, and olive brown in different specimens. The majority of the eggs are finely marked with small, well-defined spots of reddish brown and lavender, resembling the markings found on the eggs of T~mpanucI,u8 amorzcanu*, only they are much more distinct. Compared with the eggs of the two southern subspecies, P. pl&asiandflus columbianu8 and P. phasianellus campestris, they usually are very much darker colored, even the palest specimens being darker than the heaviest nrnrked eggs of either of the two subspecies. These markings are entirely superficial, and when removed leave the shell a creamy white in some cases and a very pale green In others. In shape they are usually ovate.

The measurements of 2~’ eggs average 43.1 by 32.3 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 48 by 33, 44.5 by 33.5, 40.5 by 32, and 42 by 30 millimeters.

Food: Swainson and Richardson (1831) say: “They feed on the buds and sprouts of Betula glandulo&z, of various willows, and of the aspen and larch, and in autumn on berries.” Macoun (1909) says: “These birds keep in pairs or small flocks and frequent the juniper plains all the year. The buds of these shrubs are their principal food in winter, as their berries are in summer.”

Range: Alaska, western Canada, and the Western United States. The full range of the sharp-tailed grouse extends north to Alaska (Allakakat and Fort Yukon) ; Yukon (Ramparts); Mackenzie (Fort Good Hope, Fort Norman, Grandin River, Fort Rae, Fort Resolution, and Fort Smith); northeastern Alberta (Fort Chipewyan); east-central Saskatchewan (Cumberland House); Manitoba (Grand Rapids, Norway House, Oxford House, and York Factory); north em Ontario (Severn House and Fort Albany); and Quebec (Great Whale River). East to Quebec (Great Whale River and Fort George); eastern Ontario (Lake Abitibi, Lake Temiskaming, Parry Sound, and Beaumaris); formerly northeastern Illinois (Waukegan) ; formerly east-central Iowa (Grinnell) ; and formerly central Kansas (Fort Hays). South to formerly Kansas (Fort Hays, Ellis, and Banner); Newï Mexico (ERaton); Colorado (Pagosa Springs, Fort Lewis, and Cortez); southern Utah (Parawan Mountains); and formerly northern California (Canoe Creek and Fort Crook). West to formerly northern California (Fort Crook and Camp Bidwell); Oregon (Fort Klamath, Caleb, and The Dalles); Washington (Toppenish and Dosewallops River); British Columbia (Nicola, Kamloops, Cariboo Road, 158-mile House, Quesnelle, and Hudsons Hope); southwestern Yukon (Tagish Lake, Alsek River, and Lake Kluane); and Alaska (Kolmakof, Holy Cross, Tacotna, Lake Minchumina, and Allakakat).

Sharptails are not now known to breed east of Ontario, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Colorado, and apparently they have been entirely extirpated from Iowa, Kansas, and California. The species occurs only as a summer straggler in western Alaska (Allakakat, Holy Cross, Lake Minchumina, and Kolmakof), and as a winter straggler in southeastern Ontario (Lake Abitibi and Temiskaming) and Quebec (Great Whale River). It has. howevcr, occurred in summer at Fort George, Quebec. In some winters it is abundant at Vermilion and Watertown, S. Dak.

Migration: In common with some of the ptarmigans, there appears to be a definite migration from the northern part of the range, governed by the severity of winter conditions and the available food supply. This exodus, however, does not extend south of the breeding range. It has been observed, apparently, only by E. A. Preble, who noted flocks moving southward at Fort Norman, Mackenzie, on October 1, 1903, and who detected early spring arrivals at Fort Simpson, Mackenzie, on March 12, 1904.

The range as outlined is for the entire species, which has been separated into four subspecies. The northern sharp-tailed grouse (P. p. phasianellu.s) occupies the northern part of the range south to Lake Superior, the Parry Sound district (casually) of Ontario, and the Saguenay River, Quebec. The Columbian sharp-tailed grouse (P. p. columbianu8) is found from the interior lowlands of British Columbia south (formerly) to northeastern California, Utah, Colorado, and northern New Mexico. The range of the prairie sharptailed grouse (P. p. campestris) extends from eastern Colorado, Kansas, northern Illinois, and Wisconsin north to southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

Egg dates: Northern Canada: 12 records, May 1 to June 3; 6 records, May 16 to 21. Washington and Oregon: 9 records, April 6 to June 18. Montana: S records, May 19 to June 5. Alberta to Manitoba: 52 records, May 2 to June 22; 26 records, May 30 to June 11. Dakotas and Minnesota: 27 records, May 2 to June 26; 14 records, May 19 to June 8. Colorado: 2 records, April 1 and May 8.

COLUMBIAN SHARP-TAILED GROUSE [Current A.O.U. = Sharp-tailed Grouse]


This is the grayest of the three races of sharp-tailed grouse; the northern race, typical phasianellus, is much darker, and the eastern race, campestrk, is more buffy or rufous. This western race inhabits the lowlands of the Great Basin from the Rocky Mountains to the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas. It was discovered by Lewis and Clark on the plains of the Columbia River in 1805 and was named by Ord in 1815. As it is not so widely distributed or so well known as camjJestrrs, the reader is referred to the prairie sharp-tailed grouse for the life history of the species.

Major Bendire (1892) says of this grouse:

It Is one of the most abundant and best known game birds of the Northwest, inhabiting the prairie country to be found along the foothills of the numerous mountain chains intersecting its range; seldom venturing into the wooded portions for any distance, and then only during the winter months, when it is partially migratory in certain sections. According to my own experience the Columbian Sharp-tail breeds more fro~uently on the sheltered and sunny slopes of the grass-covered foothills of the mountains than in the lower valleys and creek bottoms.

As to its past status in California, Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) say:

When Newberry, Cooper, Henshaw, and other early naturalists were making observations upon the fauna of California, previous to 1880, they found this species numerous in the plateau region northeast of the crest of the SierraCascade range. Since then, man’s occupancy of that territory, and uncontrolled levy upon its birds for food or sport, has resulted in the apparently complete disappearance of this species. They say: Coming north from San Francisco, we .~rst found it on a beautiful prairie near Canoe creek (near Cassel, Shasta County), about fifty miles northeast of Fort Reading; subsequently, after passing the mountain chain which forms the upper canon of Pit River, we came Into a level, grass-covered plain, through which the wil. low-bordered river flows in a sinuous course like a brook through a meadow (probably near Lookout, Modoc County). On this plain were great numbers of birds of various kinds, and so many of the sharp-tailed grouse, that, for two or three days, they afforded us fine sport and an abundance of excellent food. We found them again about the Kisinath lakes.

Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) say that it is “now almost or entirely extirpated” as a California bird, and that “the disappearance of this bird can be attributed to no other cause than to its incessant pursuit by man. As long as a single bird remained hunting persisted. Moreover the fact that this grouse prefers grassy localities, just such as are selected for ranch sites, indicates another of the factors that led to its extermination.~~

The southern limit of its present range seems to be in northern New Mexico, where Mrs. Florence M. Bailey (1928) says of it:

Though naturally a bird of more northern country with abundant rank grass for breeding places, the high altitude of the grassy, broken-rimmed mesas northeast of Raton, some 8,000: 9,000 feet in elevation, “appears to create a little world suitable to it in New Mexico,” which, the oldest settlers attest, has long been inhabited by it.

Nesting: Maj or Bendire (1892) says of its nesting habits:

Nidification began usually from about April 15 to May 1, according to the season. I found a set of fifteen eggs, which had been sat upon about a week or ten days, on April 22, 1871. Some birds must have laid earlier still, as it was no uncommon sight to find fully grown birds by July 10. AU the nests of this species which I examined were invariably well concealed and rather difficult to find. You might search daily for a couple of weeks and be unsuccessful in finding a nest, and again you might stumble on two or three on the same day. A bunch-grass covered hillside, with a southerly exposure, seemed to be a favorite nesting site with this Grouse at Fort Lapwai, while at Camp Barney, Oregon, they confined themselves during the breeding season to the sage brush covered plains of the Barney Valley, interspersed here and there with a low grassy swale, nesting along the borders of these, where the grass attained a heavier growth. The nest, like that of all the Grouse, Is always placed on the ground, usually close alongside some tall bunch of coarse grass, which hides it completely from view. Even If it did not, the female harmonizes in color so thoroughly with her surroundings that she is not apt to be noticed, unless she should leave her nest, which she does not do very readily, as she is a very close sitter. A slight hollow, usually scratched out on the upper side of a bunch of grass, if the nest Is placed on a hillside, is fairly lined with dry grams, of which there is ordinarily an abundance to be found in the vicinity, and this constitutes the nest. A few feathers from the lower parts of the bird are usually mixed in among the eggs, each one of which Is often imbedded about two-thirds In Its own mould and does not touch the others. Once only did I find the eggs placed on top of each other, eight in the lower and five in the upper layer.

Eggs: The eggs of the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse are indistinguishable from those of its prairie relative. The measurements of 58 eggs average 43.8 by 82.1 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 46.5 by 34.5, 39 by 31, and 42.5 by 30.5 millimeters.

Young: Major Bendire (1892) writes:

The young are active, handsome little creatures, and able to use their legs at once on leaving the shell. They are at first fed mostly on insects, young grasshoppers and crickets forming the principal portion of their bill of fare. The former are always abundant and easily obtained; later, when the young are able to fly, the mother leads them to the creek bottoms, where they find an abundance of berries and browse. They are especially fond of the seeds of the wild sunflower, which grows very abundantly in some places, and when these are ripe, many of these birds can he found in the vicinity where these plants grow.

Coues (1874) says:

The young, as usual among gallinaceous birds, run about almost as soon as they are hatched; and it is interesting to witness the watchful solicitude with which they are cherished by the parent when she first leads them from the nest in quest of food, glancing in every direction, in her Intense anxiety, lest harm befall them. She clucks matronly to bring them to brood under her wings or to call them together to scramble for a choice morsel of food she has found. Should danger threaten, a different note alarms them; they scatter in every direction, running, like little mice, through the grass till each finds a hiding place; meanwhile, she exposes herself to attract attention, till, satisfied of the safety of the brood, she whirrs away and awaits the time when she may reassemble her family. In the region where I observed the birds in June and July, they almost invariably betook themselves to the dense, resistant underbrush, which extends for some distance outward from the wooded streams, seeking safety in this all but impenetrable cover, where it was nearly impossible to catch the young ones, or even to see them, until they began to top the bushes in their early short flights. The wing and tail-feathers sprout in a few days and are quite well grown before feathers appear among the down of the body. The first coveys seen able to rise on wing were noticed early in July; but by the middle of this month most of them fly smartly for short distances, being about as large as Quails. Others, however. may he observed through August, little, if any, larger than this, showing a wide range of time of hatching, though scarcely warranting the inference of two broods in a season.

Behavior: The habits of this grouse are essentially the same as those of the prairie sharp-tailed grouse, but Bendire (1892) observes: The habits of the Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse vary very materially in different portions of the country where I have met with them. At Fort Klamath, Oregon, where they are rather rare, I have found them inhabiting decidedly marshy and swampy country, and keeping close to, If not in the edges of, the pine timber throughout the year. At Fort Custer, Montana, this Grouse, during the winter, was much more arboreal than terrestrial in its habits, moving around on the limbs of the large cottonwood trees as unconcernedly as on the ground; spending in this way almost all their time, except when feeding. At Harney, Oregon, and Lapwai, Idaho, they might be frequently seen in small trees and bushes which grow along the creeks, but scarcely ever in large trees, of which there was an abundance. Here, they uttered very few notes at any time, while at Fort Custer I have frequently heard them cackling In the tall cotton woods which grew along the Big Horn River bottom, before I had approached within several hundred yards of them, evidently giving notice to other birds In the vicinity of my coming. This fine game bird Is decreasing very rapidly throughout Its range. It does not seem to prosper in the vicinity of man, and as the country is becoming more and more settled, it recedes before civilization. As it is not a particularly shy bird, it falls an easy victim to the gunner.

PRAIRIE SHARP-TAILED GROUSE [Current A.O.U. = Sharp-tailed Grouse]


On my various trips to North Dakota, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, I became quite familiar with the sharp-tailed grouse of the eastern plains. It is not so nmch a bird of the open prairie as is the prairie chicken; but we found it very common in the sandhills, among the willow thickets, and on the low, rolling hills overgrown with shrubbery. Its range is becoming more and more restricted as the Central West becomes more thickly settled and more land comes under cultivation. In some places it is decreasing in numbers where prairie chickens are increasing. Edwyn Sandys (1904) writes:

It has been claimed by more than one well-known expert that the sharptail and pinnated grouse are bitter foes, but this I am inclined to doubt. I am well aware of the belief among western sportsmen that the one species drives the other from its haunts, but believe that the true reason for the supplanting of one species by the other is nothing more than the closer settlement of what a few years ago were wild regions. In other words, one bird follows the farmer, while the other retreats before him.

Courtship: The courtship performance of the sharp-tailed grouse is no less interesting than that of other grouse. It is quite similar to that of the prairie chicken and the heath hen; perhaps not quite .so grotesque but more animated. These birds have favorite spots, generally small knolls, to which they resort for this purpose every spring; these are known as “dancing hills.” Frank L. Parley writes to me from Alberta:

On my farm at Dried Meat Lake, an average of a dozen pairs nest every year. There are two dancing hills on this farm that the Indians told me had been used as long as they could remember; one is a little knoll right overlooking the lake, and the other is half a mile away. I have seen as many as 50 birds dancing on each hill at a time; that is, waiting until the ground was vacated by the previous dancers. They would wait patiently for their turn. These dances take place every April and May, and often the grain, when up, is tramped entirely away. I can generally get up to within 25 feet of the dancers with my car to watch them.

Dr. D. G. Elliot (1897) gives a very good account of the “dancing,” as follows:

In the early spring, in the month of April, when perhaps in many parts of their habitat in the northern regions the snoxv still remains upon the ground, the birds, both males and females, assemble at some favorite place Just as day is breaking, to go through a performance as curious as it is eccentric. The males, with ruffled feathers, spread tails, expanded air sacs on the neck, heads drawn toward the back, and drooping wings (in fact, the whole body puffed out as nearly as possible into the shape of a ball on two stunted supports), strut about in circles, not all going the same way, but passing and crossing each other in various angles. As the “dance” proceeds the excitement of the birds increases, they stoop toward the ground, twist and turn, make sudden rushes forward, stamping the ground with short quick heats of the feet, leaping over each other In their frenzy, then lowering their heads, exhaust the air in the sacs, producing a hollow sound that goes reverberating through the still air of the breaking day. Suddenly they become quiet, and walk about like creatures whose sanity is unquestioned, when some male again becomes possessed and starts off on a rampage, and the “attack” from which he suffers becomes infectious and all the other birds at once give evidences of having taken the same disease, which then proceeds with a regular development to the usual conclusion. As the sun gets well above the horizon, and night’s shadows have all been hurried away, the antics of the birds cease, the booming no longer resounds over the praIrie, and the Grouse scatter In search of food, and in pursuit of their daily avocation. While this performance is always to he seen in the spring, It is not unusually indulged in for a brief turn in the autumn, and while it may be considered as essentially a custom of the breeding season, yet like the drumming of the Ruffed Grouse, it may be regarded also as an exhibition of the birds’ vigor and vitality, indulged in at periods of the year even when the breeding season has long passed.

Ernest Thompson Seton (Thompson, 1890) says:

The whole performance reminds one so strongly of a Cree dance as to suggest the possibility of its being the prototype of the Indian exercise. The space occupied by the dancers is from 50 to 100 feet across, and as it is returned to year after year, the grass is usually worn off and the ground trampled down hard and smooth.

Hamilton M. Laing (1913) noticed that the birds danced in pairs and that each pair usually kept to a certain section of the hill. He describes a lively fight he saw as follows:

The fun had reached its frenzy pitch ~vhen suddenly I noted that something other than dancing was taking place. It very much resembled a fight; and soon I realized that such It really was, though it had a most absurdly comic side to it. The fray was a three-cornered affair. The first fellow fled in circles; the second followed him; and the third brought up the rear. I decided that it was two cocks fighting, and that the cause at issue, and root of the trouble, was merely following the contestants. They whirled about the hill at lightning speed, runnIng on legs that fairly spun, or dashing short snatches on the wing, through the set or over the dancers. The second fellow had blood in his eye, and the first: evidently an interloper, who was not wanted: lacked the courage or fiber to turn and fight it out. Yet, when the pursuer caught him, they bit and held on with a grip like bull-dogs, and rolled over, and beat each other with their wings, and shed each other’s feathers. The interloper always got thumped, but not until he was properly mauled would he retreat.

E. S. Cameron (1907) writes:

At this date (April 18) the ball Is opened by a single cock making a run across the open space as fast as he can use his legs, the tall being Inclined stifily over the back, while the wings are dragged, so that a large white area is exposed behind. The vivid yellow supracillary fringe is erected, and, all the feathers of the neck standing on end, a pink inflated sac is disclosed. At the same time the head Is carried so low as almost to touch the ground, so that the bird is transformed in appearance and, as observed through binoculars at some distance, looks to be running backwards. He then returns at full speed, when another cock comes forward toward him, both advancing slowly, with vibrating tails, to meet finally and stand drumming their quills in a trance with tightly dosed eyes. After perhaps a minute one bird peeps at the other, and seeing him still enraptured, resumes an upright graceful carriage, anon stealing gently away. His companion is thus left foolishly posing at nothing, but presently he too awakes, and departs from the arena In a normal manner. Meanwhile the remaining cocks, one after another, take up the running till all have participated, but the end of each figure seems to be the same. Two birds squat fiat on the ground with their beaks almost touching for about twenty minutes, and when they do this they are out of the dances for that day. The dance appears to terminate by some bird, either a late starter or one more vigorous than the rest, being unable to find a partner to respond to his run. Having assured himself of this, he utters a disgusted clucking, and all the grouse fly away at intervals as they complete their term of squatting.

Nesting: The sharp-tailed grouse is not very particular as to a nesting site and is not much of a nest builder. The nest is a hollow in the ground, scantily lined with whatever loose material is available. It is usually partially concealed under a thick tuft of tall grass on the prairie or under bushes or thick herbage in a bushy tract or near a stream. We found these grouse very common around Crane Lake in 1905. On one day, June 5, we discovered three nests on the bushy prairies near Bear Creek. One of the nests that I photographed was under a little rosebush; the hollow was 7 inches across and 2½ inches deep; it was lined with fine twigs, straws, and feathers. Another similar nest was under a “grease bush,” or “silver willow.” A nest found June 2, 1913, near Lake Winnipegosis, Manitoba, was a hollow in the ground 8 inches across and 4 inches deep; it was concealed in long grass on a grassy and bushy dry place on a low, wet prairie near the lake. We found that the birds were usually close sitters, flushing almost underfoot. In one case, where we wanted to photograph the bird on a previously located nest, we had difficulty in finding it again, although we had marked the spot with a tuft of cotton. After scanning the ground very carefully, foot by foot, for a long time, we finally discovered the bird sitting on her nest within less than 10 feet. She shows up plainly enough in the photograph, but in life her color pattern matched her surroundings so well that she was nearly invisible, though in plain sight.

Dr. Alfred 0. Gross has sent me his notes on five nests found by him in Wood County, Wis., June 1 to 4, 1930. Following are his notes on three of them, containing 13, 11, and 12 eggs, respectively: Nest built among the grass and moss of a rounded knoll about 4 feet in diameter, located in a wet, swampy region remote from any farmed land. Growing throughout the swamp were small willows, poplars, and swamp grass. It was lined chiefly with grass, much of which was the bent-over tips of the grass growing about the nest. The nest and eggs were partially concealed by the overhanging grasses.

Nest lined with oak leaves, dry ferns, grass, and a few feathers of the nesting bird. About three-fourths of the lining consisted of oak leaves, which had fallen from a scrub oak near by. About the nest was a thick growth of moss and checkerberry (Gt~ultherfa). Very near to the nest was a thicket of pin cherries, poplars, and willows, and here and there were masses of blueberry bushes about a foot in height. The country about the nest was a sand plain, with a few marshy sloughs, but most of the land was brushy, chiefly willows, cherry, hazel, black and scrub oaks, and poplars.

This nest was located near the margin of a scrub-oak area that bordered an extensive grassy marsh. The edge of the marsh was only a few feet distant. The nest was very shallow and lined with sticks, grass, and a few leaves and grouse feathers. Growing about the nest were vines and grass, and the whole was well concealed by a mass of blueberry bushes.

Gross says further:

Judged from the situations in which these five nests were found, the sharptailed grouse chooses a nesting site remote from farms and in places where there is considerable brushy growth. The prairie-chicken nests, however, are nearly all near farms or on the farmed fields, such as the meadows and alfalfa and clover fields. Though the nesting sites vary considerably, the birds are frequently seen together during the hunting season, and Mr. Cole, local game warden at Wisconsin Rapids, states that on one occasion he killed a prairie chicken and a sharp-tailed grouse with one shot. Several times in traversing the prairies I have seen both species together, this summer (1930).

Eggs: From 10 to 13 eggs generally constitute the full set for the sharp-tailed grouse, but as many as 14 or 15 are sometimes found in a nest. They are ovate in shape, and the shell is smooth, with a slight gloss. They are quite dark colored when first laid and have a purpUsh bloom, but the bloom disappears very quickly and the color gradually fades. The colors vary from “buckthorn brown ” or “old gold “to “dark olive-buff or” olive-buff.” Many eggs are almost, or quite, immaculate, but more often they are speckled with very small spots or minute dots of dark brown. The measurements of 58 eggs average 42.6 by 32 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 45.2 by 33.8, 44.2 by 34.1, 40 by 31, and 41 by 30 millimeters.

Young: The period of incubation is about 21 days, and this duty is probably performed by the female alone. Only one brood is raised in a season. Seton (Thompson, 1890) writes:

A partial history of the young in a wild state is briefly as follows: At the age of 6 weeks they are fully feathered and at 2 months fully grown, although still under guidance of the mother at this time. There is usually not more than six or seven young ones left out of the original average brood of fifteen, which statement shows the number of chicks which fall a prey to their natural enemies, while many sets of eggs also are destroyed by the fires which annually devastate the prairies. As the fall advances they gather more and more into flocks and become regular visitors to the stubble fields, and, in consequence, regular articles of diet with the farmers until the first fall of snow buries their foraging grounds and drives them en masse to the woods.

Doctor Gross says in his notes:

So far as my observation goes only one bird incubates and cares for the young. I did not see the male about the nest at any time. The female is a nervous, excitable creature and continually flits her tail when walking about or approaching the nest. The tail is usually widespread and displaying the patches, and the long tail feathers are held up in an upright position, making a striking picture.

Plumages: Downy young sharptails are decidedly yellowish; the general color varies from” mustard yellow ” above to ” straw yellow” below, washed on the crown and back with “ochraceous-tawny”; they are spotted on the crown and blotched or streaked on the back with black; there is a black spot at the base of the culmen and a. black spot on the auriculars.

As with all grouse, small chicks show the growth of juvenal plumage, beginning with the wings; before the young birds are half grown they are fully feathered, and even before that they are able to fly. In full juvenal plumage, in July, the crown and occiput are “hazel,” centrally black; the feathers of the mantle and wing coverts are brownish black, broadly tipped, barred, or notched with “ochraceous-tawny” on the back and with “ocliraceous-buff” on the coverts; the feathers of the mantle have a broad median white stripe; the underparts are dull white, spotted or barred on the breast and flanks with “sepia” and “cinnamon-buff “; the four central tail feathers (sometimes nearly all of them) are patterned with “ochraceousbuff” and black, with a broad median white stripe, and they are all decidedly pointed; the chin and throat are “colonial buff.”

Within a month or so, during August, the postjuvenal molt takes place. This is a complete molt, except that the outer primaries on each wing are retained for a full year; it produces a first winter plumage, which is practically adult in September. Adults may have a partial prenuptial molt, about the head and neck. They have a complete postnuptial molt, during July, August, and September. The sharp-tailed grouse has several times been known to hybridize with the prairie chicken.

Food: Dr. Sylvester D. Judd (1905a), by his examination of 43 stomachs of sharp-tailed grouse, showed that animal matter (insects) formed only 10.19 percent of the food, whIle vegetable matter (seeds, fruit, and ‘Browse’) made 89.81 percent The insect matter consists of bugs, 0.50 percent; grasshoppers, 4.62 percent; beetles, 2.86 percent, and miscellaneous insects, 2.21 percent in a total of 10.19 percent of the food. Vernon Bailey, of the Biological Survey, found that three birds shot by him In Idaho August 29 had eaten chiefly insects, including grasshoppers, small bugs, and small caterpillars. The young of the sharp-tailed grouse, like those of other gallinaceous species, are nighly insectivorous. A downy chick from 1 to 8 days old, collected on June 27, in Manitoba, by Ernest Thompson Seton, had eaten 95 percent of Insects and 5 percent of wild strawberries. The sharptailed grouse Is fond of grasshoppers. Vernon Bailey shot 8 birds at Elk River, Mlnn., September 17, 1894, whIch had eaten, respectively, 7, 23, and 31 grasshoppers. The species is a destroyer also of the Rocky Mountain locust. Of 9 bIrds collected by Professor Aughey from May to October, lnc.uslve, 6 bad eaten 174 of these pests. The bird eats also a few crickets and, like tither gallinaceous game birds, devours the Colorado potato beetle (Leptinotarsa Jecemflneataj.

The vegetable food of the sharp-tailed grouse, so far as ascertained In the laboratory, comprises weed seeds, 7.39 percent; graIn, 20.50 percent; fruit 27.68 percent; leaves, buds, and flowers, 31.07 percent; and miscellaneous vegetable food, 8.06 percent; making a total of 89.81 percent. Like many other game birds, the species feeds on mast (largely acorns), including acorns of the scarlet oak (Querous ooceinea). Corn Is eaten, but whcat Is the favorite grain. It formed 17.21 percent of the food. A thousand kernels of wheat were sometimes found in one stomach. The sharp-tailed grouse Is a great browser. It makes 31.07 percent of its food of leaves, buds, and flowers. Ernest Thompson Seton found It eating the buds of willow and birch. It feeds on the leaves ef cottonwood, alder, blueberry, Juniper, and larch; also leaves of qulllwort (Iaoetes), vetch, dandelion, grass, and rush (Junous). Rearne says that in winter It eats the tops of the dwarf birch and the buds of poplars. Flowers form 19.90 percent of its diet, the species leading all other birds In this respect. A half pint of the showy, bluish blossoms of the pasque flower (Pulsatifla ltirsutia8ima) which brightens the western prairie are often taken at a meal, and those of the dandelion also are eaten. Inflorescence of grasses, alder, willow, maple, and canoe birch are plucked along with leaf buds. Like the prairie hen and the ruffed grouse, the sharp-tailed grouse Is frugivorous, and fruit forms 27.68 percent of Its diet. Hips of wild rose alone form 17.88 percent Ernest Thompson Seton, who examined hundreds of stomachs of the sharp-tailed grouse, says that he can not recollect an instance In which they did not contain the stony seeds of the wild rose. Mr. Seton states that in places in Manitoba, where he has collected during the winter, gravel to pulverize the food is not to be had, and the stony rose seeds act In its stead. Rose hips appear difficult to digest, and, furthermore, are sometimes thickly set with bristles that would Irritate the human stomach, but appear to cause no Inconvenience to the grouse. The persistent bright-colored hips are readily seen above the snow, and they are a boon to the birds In wintry northern regions where the struggle for existence is hitter. It feeds oK blueberries and cranberries and on the snowberry (Symphoricarpus rcLCeflWSU8), various species of mauzanita, bearberry (Arctostapltylos uva-ursi), buffalo berry (Lapargprea argentea), Juniper berries, huckleberries, and arbutus berries. It takes also the partridge berry (Mite/taPe ravens), a favorite with the ruffed grouse, Like many other species, It eats with relish the fruit of cornel (Corn-us sloton-If era) and poison ivy (both Rhus radicens and Rhus diversilo be).

Behavior: The sharp-tailed grouse rises with a loud whir of wings and flies away with considerable speed, usually in a straight line in the open, with rapid beats of the wings alternated with short periods of sailing on down-curved wings. While hunting for nests, where these grouse were common, we kept flushing them from their roosting and dusting places among the bushes. As they rose, and for some distance afterwards, they uttered a peculiar clucking note sounding like whiucker, whucker, whucker. They flew rapidly for some distance and then set their wings and scaled downward into some good cover or behind some little hill. Seton (Thompson, 1890) says:

Their mode of flight is to flap and sail by turns every 40 or 50 yards, and so rapid and strong are they on the wing that I have seen a chicken save Itself by Its swiftness from the first swoop of a peregrine Falcon, while another was seen to escape by flight from a Snowy Owl.

Aretas A. Saunders says in his notes:

Though usually found on the ground, these birds sometimes perch In trees, either cottonwoods along a river valley or in yellow pines where hills and prairie come together. In southeastern Montana and northwestern South Dakota they come into the pine hills when the snow gets deep and spend the nights there. In that region I saw them in larger flocks than elsewhere, often 50 or 60 birds in a flock. In the pine hills I have seen as many as 30 birds perched in a single yellow pine and have watched them fly from tree to tree, haLf a dozen birds leaving at n time, and then another group following till the whole flock had reached the new tree.

Voice: Besides the hollow booming sound made by the birds in the courtship dance and the guttural clucking notes so commonly heard when they are flushed,” the birds have several cackling notes, and the males a peculiar crowing or low call, that in tone sounds somewhat like the call of the turkey” (Goss, 1891).

Enemies: These grouse are subject to the attacks of the numerous enemies that beset all ground-nesting birds. Their eggs and young are preyed upon by the smaller and slower predatory mammals and birds, while the larger beasts and birds of prey attack the adults. While absorbed in their courtship dancing they are easy prey to the crafty coyote. Laing (1913) tells of a family of coyotes that established their den, skilfully hidden, on one of the dancing hills; here he found ample evidence that the wise old coyote and her pups had levied regular toll on the unsuspecting grouse. The larger falcons and the goshawk take their share of the grouse, though the latter are fast enough in flight to give even these swift-winged hawks a lively chase. C. L. Broley has sent me the following notes:

One cold day this fall, while bird observing with Mrs. Broley on the banks of the Red River, north of Selkirk, we saw three sharp-tailed grouse fly out of the woods on the opposite side of the river as if they had urgent business elsewhere, and a moment later a fourth one burst out with two goshawks in hot pursuit. The grouse flew directly out over the water, where one of the hawks, reluctant to follow In the open, dropped out of the chase. The grouse fled upstream, keeping some 50 feet above the water and an equal distance from each shore, followed, some 30 feet behind, by the other hawk, which to our surprise kept below the altitude of the thoroughly frightened chicken, which was taking advantage of a strong north wind and making wonderful time, using his wings almost continually and sailing very little.

Fortunately we had a clear view up the river for nearly 2 miles and while the birds were covering this distance their respective positions remained unchanged, hut when the bend of the river was reached the grouse changed Its course, going over the land. The goshawk immediately rose from below to well above Its quarry, with the full intention, we thought, of making its swoop, but unfortunately Intervening trees close to us hid the rest of the incident.

Norman Griddle (1930), in an interesting study of the fluctuations in numbers of grouse in Manitoba, from 1895 to 1929, has shown on a graph “the remarkable regularity with which sharp-tailed grouse fluctuate in company with grasshoppers.” His theory is that young grouse are fed to a large extent on grasshoppers and that during periods of abundance of these insects the birds rear large broods. He says:

Referring again to our graph it will he observed that all the high points of Sharp-tailed Grouse abundance were preceded and accompanied by grasshopper outbreaks. Of these outbreaks the one of 1900: 1903 was much the worst that we ever experienced in the Aweme district, and it was not finally subdued until 1905. The peak of grouse abundance was also attained at this time, and we have no records of Sharp-tailed Grouse ever being in greater numbers.

Game: My experience with sharp-tailed grouse was confined to the breeding season, when they are very tame, flush near at hand, fly rather straight and evenly, and give one a good, open, easy shot. We considered them easy marks and had no difficulty in shooting all we needed for specimens. But in fall, after they have been shot at, they are evidently more gamy and seem to be popular as game birds. Sandys (1904) writes:

The sport afforded by this grouse is of a very high order. At the opening of the season it lies well to the dog, and springs with the usual whirr of wings, at the same time uttering a vigorous clucking, which Is repeated again and again as the birds speed away, alternately flapping and sailing. When driven to brush, they very frequently behave not unlike quail, flushing close at hand, and offering the prettiest of single chances. The flesh is excellent, light-colored in young birds, and darkening with age, but always worthy of a place on the board. Not seldom, as one nears the pointing dog, he will see the birds squatted in the grass, and perhaps, have one after another turn and run a few yards before taking wing. When thus seen they are very handsome, the crest Is raised, and the white hinder feathers show like the flag of a deer, or the scut of a cottontail rabbit. Almost invariably the flush is straggling, giving a quick man a fine opportunity for scoring again and again. At the proper season, i. e., just before the broods begin to pack and become wary, this bird affords sport to be long remembered. I have enjoyed it to the full, and know of nothing better for a business-harassed man than a day on the sunny open with the sharptnlls behaving well. Like all prairie-grouse, this bird, rising close, Is an easy mark far whoever has learned not to be hurried by the sound of wings. A good twelve-gauge, properly held, should stop its buzzing and clucking fully three-fourths of all reasonable chances.

Winter: Seton (Thompson, 1890) writes:

During the summer the habits of the chickens are eminently terrestrial; they live, feed, and sleep almost exclusively on the round; but the first snow makes a radical tinge. They now act more like a properly adapted perching bird, for they spend a large part of their time In the highest trees, flying from one to another and perching, browsing, or walking about among the branches with perfect ease, and evidently at this time preferring an arboreal to a terrestrial life. When thus aloft they are not at all posseesed of that feeling of security which makes the similarly situated Huffed Grouse so easy a prey to the pothunter. On the contrary, their perfect grasp of the situation usually renders them shy and induces them to fly long ere yet the sportsman has come near enough to be dangerous. Like most of the members of its family, the Prairie Chicken spends the winter nights in the snow, which is always soft and penetrable In the woods although out on the plains it is beaten by the wind Into drifts of ice-like hardness. As the evening closes in the birds fly down from the trees and either dive headlong Into a drift or run about a little and select a place before going under. The bed is generally about 6 Inches from the surface and a foot long from the entrance. Each individual prepares his own place, so that a flock of a dozen chickens may be scattered over a space of 50 yards square. By the morning each bird’s breath has formed a solid wall of ice in front of It, so that it Invariably goes out at one side. The great disadvantage of the snow bed is, that when there the birds are more likely to become the prey of foxes and other predaceous animals, whose sagacious nostrils betray the very spots beneath which the unsuspecting bird is soundly slumbering. I am inclined to think this is the only chance a fox has of securing one of the old birds, so wary are they at all other times.

Laing (1913) says:

The question of winter food is never a big problem with these rouse. There is always an abundance of hawthorn hips, rose fruit, snowberries, or other winter-cured fruits; in addition to these, edible buds of many kinds, are in abundance. Best of all, they seem to relish the sweetish, frost-ripened berries of the dwarfish snowberry that peep above the snow just far enough to invite picking. Of the tree-buds, poplar, willow, and dwarf birch are winter staples, and these are consumed in great quantities. The quest of wheat in winter frequently leads these grouse to come right into the towns. They first took this bold step after finding wheat dropped along the roads and railway. As the clue led in the direction of the big red elevators, they followed it in at first, but soon needed no grain trail by way of invitation. They were quick to learn that they were not molested in the winter, and indeed received a ready welcome. The daily itinerary of this flock in mid-winter Is about as follows: With the first peep of dawn they leave their snow beds and mount to the tops of the willows and poplars, close at hand. At sunrise or a little before it, they whizz off into town and scatter around the various feeding grounds mentioned above. About ten o’clock they usually take a run out along the railway track, evidently to get a supply of gravel; then they return to spend the warm part of the day in the scrubby sandhills. Here they sit about in the sun, and pick a few buds; or if the day is very cold and the snow light and deep, they burrow for their noon-day nap. At three o’clock they return to their feeding-place of the morning, and then shortly before sundown go back to the scrub to make their beds for the night. Here while the cruel wind sweeps across the plains and the thermometer ofttimes regIsters in the minus forties, they remain cuddled snugly away from the bitter night-world.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

Let others know your thoughts or ask an expert

Would you like to get new articles of birds (Once a month?)

No SPAM! We might only send you fresh updates once a month

Thank you for subscribing!

No thanks! I prefer to follow BirdZilla on Facebook