|The sharptail is known not only as a challenging upland game bird, but also, for its spring courtship display, known as “dancing.”
During spring mornings, groups of two to thirty males gather on traditional dancing grounds to woo a mate. With wings spread, tail
erect, and head down, each male competes with the others on its own tiny piece of ground by rattling its central tail feathers,
stomping its feet, cooing, and inflating its purple air sacks and yellow eye brows. Morning after morning, the same ritual continues
until the hens are bred. Viewing dancing sharptails from observation blinds is a spectacular birding activity and photo opportunity,
and each spring, hundreds of persons take part. The video below shows sharptails in the spring on an active lek.
|Bringing Back the Sharptail
The sharp-tailed grouse, Minnesota’s only “native” prairie grouse, goes by many names. It’s called “sharptail” because of its two long and pointed
central tail feathers. It’s called “the in-between bird or brush chicken” because of its love for large areas of open brush, with some grass. Native
North Americans called it the “fire bird” because of the sharptail’s affinity for burned areas.
Through the 1900’s, the sharptail’s range decreased as agriculture became more intensive. They were still common in the 1940’s in southern
Minnesota, and a remnant population survived in the Owatonna area into the 1960’s. But as homesteads were abandoned, and old fields were
reclaimed by northern forests, and fire detection and suppression became more efficient, the fire bird’s range decreased. Today, sharptails are
found mainly on the flat, formerly ditched brush landscapes of northwestern and east-central Minnesota. Although their numbers are down in
Minnesota, they have fared much poorer to the east. They are gone from Illinois and Iowa. In Michigan, sharptails are restricted to a few areas in the
Upper Peninsula, and in Wisconsin, only a few remnant populations survive.
As recently as 1949, hunters took 150,000 sharptails in Minnesota, and in the late 1970’s, harvests approximated 50,000. Back then, it was
Minnesota’s third ranked game bird, behind ruffed grouse and pheasants. In response to declining populations from habitat loss, sharptail harvests
have gradually declined further to about 10,000 annually.
What is the future of sharptails in Minnesota? It depends on continued brushlands management funding, and cooperation between a number of
partners, including DNR’s Division of Forestry, The Nature Conservancy (which now manages large land holdings in northwestern Minnesota),
federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, birding enthusiasts, and private landowners. New on the horizon is natural brushland biomass
harvesting, which has the potential for managing large expanses of brushlands for bio-fuels at almost no cost to DNR.
Sharptail numbers can never return to those of the homestead era. But it is possible to manage habitat towards DNR’s goal of a 50,000 yearly
sharptail harvest. Gradually, hunters accustomed to traveling to the Dakotas are re-discovering sharptails in Minnesota, and northern communities
are again benefiting from the expenditures of sharptail hunters in the fall. Gradually, birdwatchers are discovering the thrill of watching a short-eared
owl or sandhill crane, or of watching sharptails dance in the spring. Gradually, sharptails are coming back.
|"Fire-bird" in flight.
Photo courtesy of Terry Sohl
|Male sharptail dancing in snow.
Photo courtesy of Craig Brock
|Copyright 2008-2015 Minnesota Sharp-Tailed Grouse Society.
|For another great video of sharptails dancing, check out Beau Liddell's video...