Greater sage grouse males strut their stuff for the cameras of Gail Patricelli‘s lab (and the female grouse) on a mating lek in Wyoming, in 2008.
In the spring, greater sage grouse males (Centrocercus urophasianus) gather together on open knolls and patches of bare soil and low vegetation in groups called leks. Like gyms or bars, lekking grounds are social performance spaces, where males spread their tail-feathers, inflate their impressive chests, and strut about, calling amorously to the lady birds. To entice female sage grouse to choose them as mates, the males shake the fluffy white rolls around their necks and puff out the two naked, yellow air sacs in the gular skin under their chins, “burping” air out of the sacs in loud exhales.
Just a few hot males will successfully woo most of the females visiting the lek. Ecologist Gail Patricelli of UC Davis captured the above video of a lek near Hudson, Wyoming. She and her students and postdocs observe animal communication in the wild with a specially developed array of microphones and digital cameras that captures the directionality of birdsong as well as bird behavior and the ecological context of their mating displays.
Previous studies have suggested that loudness influences the females’ choice. The direction of the male’s vocal projection affects the female’s perceptions of loudness, so Patricelli and postdoc Alan Krakauer have set out to test the idea with their recording system and a robotic female grouse puppet fitted with a microphone and video camera.
Patricelli’s lab is also investigating the possibility that noise from the booming energy sector, namely natural gas and coal bed methane production, has contributed to the decline of sage grouse numbers in Wyoming. Development, wildfire, habitat fragmentation, and ecosystem changes wrought by non-native species all pressure sage grouse, which mate, forage, and nest on the ground. US Fish and Wildlife Service named the grouse’s habitat, the Great Plains sage-steppe, one of the most imperiled ecosystems in America.
More about sage grouse:
Sage grouse losing habitat to fire as endangered species decision looms. Ecotone 3 April 2014.
See more sage grouse action: photographer Ronan Donovan has nice HD footage of a Montana Lek on Vimeo.