This Spring I have been searching for this bird, the Sharp-tailed Grouse. I finally found a small flock south of Cook, thanks to a tip off. (Thanks Penny!)
As with many of these birds, this group was on private land. I obtained permission from the property owners to set up my blind and take some photos.
Many think of the Sharp-tailed Grouse as an inhabitant of the prairie, but actually their preferred habitat is that of brushlands and open areas in forests, it seems they also need some kind of a bog component. In Minnesota, back before the great wilderness area of the north was settled, the Sharp-tail Grouse thrived. Back then wildfires would clear an area of forest; the Sharp-tails would come out of the swamp to these clearings to perform their strange dance. Prior to the 1800’s this bird was known in our area as the Prairie Chicken.
As settlers moved into southern Minnesota and started clearing the landscape, the Greater Prairie Chicken, or Pinnated Grouse, came along to previously uninhabited territory. You see, what we now know as the Greater Prairie Chicken historically was not native to Minnesota, although they are native to North America, their range previously was south and west of here. The Greater Prairie Chicken moved into the southern and western reaches of MN about 200 years ago. The Sharp-tail retreated to the north and west, and as a result their numbers declined. But where they do occur, they are residents year round. And the Cook area is one of those last vestiges where they can be found in St Louis County. In winter they can be seen roosting in trees and shrubs feeding on Tamarack and Alder buds. They will also burrow into the snow on cold winter nights like Ruffed Grouse do.
In the spring the Sharp-tailed Grouse gather in groups and perform a bizarre dance on a “lek”. The males inflate purple throat sacs and make strange cooing and booming noises. The yellow combs above their eyes enlarge. They hold their wings up and away like they’re hovering while they hold their tail straight up. They’ll shake their wings and tail simultaneously, which makes a rattling sound, all the while drumming their feet on the ground. As one of my old bird books says, “they spin about like mechanical toys while stamping their feet on the ground”. Two or three males will engage in the dance and then all at once they will stop, as at a signal, they’ll freeze in that position, and then all at once they will start up again. When a female enters the mix, look out, the frenzied dancers will take off in full display dashing about the female.