The sharp-tailed grouse is sometimes referred to as the fire grouse or fire bird by some Native American tribes and by the Latin name, Tympanuchus Phasianellus. The term fire bird comes from the fact that sharp-tailed grouse rely on brush fires in order for their habitat to be kept open.
The genus Tympanuchus is comprised of the sharp-tailed grouse, the lesser prairie chicken and the greater prairie chicken. This particular genus is only ever found in North America.
The bird gets its name because of the much shorter tail, featuring two central feathers that are lighter and longer than the outer tail feathers. Plumage consists of mottled brown colourings against a background of white. This particular species of grouse has light under parts and a white belly with ‘V’ shaped markings. It is these markings that make the sharp-tailed grouse distinguishable from the related lesser and greater prairie chickens, which usually have barred under parts. Adult males usually have a violet display patch on the neck as well as a yellow comb over the eyes. Male prairie chickens have orange or yellow coloured sacks. The female is considerably smaller than the male and can be identified by horizontal markings on the deck feathers, whereas in males, the markings are usually irregular. Females will generally have less pronounced combs and weigh around four or five ounces less than their male counterparts.
Before European settlement, the sharp tailed grouse was native to eight Canadian provinces and twenty one U.S states. They could be found in Alaska and as far south as California and New Mexico. Since European settlement, the bird has been wiped out in several US states including California, New Mexico, Kansas and Illinois.
Feeding patterns change with the seasons. In summer, the sharp-tailed grouse forages on the ground for seeds, berries, leaves and insects. They spend much of their time feeding in trees during the winter months.
The sharp-tailed grouse is known to be a lekking species. Leks are areas in which birds display with other males. These areas can consist of anything between one and twenty birds with the average standing at around twelve. A lek is where animals congregate to partake in courtship rituals. These leks are attended by males between the months of March to July, although the most activity occurs in April. Mating rituals and timescales can heavily depend on weather patterns however. The courtship ritual of a male involves it stamping its feet rapidly dancing in circles or back and forth while displaying their tail feathers. ‘Cooing’ calls are used to attract a female’s attention as well as warding off other males. The most dominant males, usually only one or two, are selected from the lek by a female and copulation occurs. The female will then leave and nest in order to raise the young without the help of the males. Some lower ranking grouse have been known to pose as females and walk into the centre of the lek then spring a surprise attack on the dominant males.
The sharp-tailed grouse can be found in several of the various prairie ecosystems in North America. These ecosystems include the pine savannahs of the upper Midwest to the shrub steppe prairies of the Great Plains. Particular selections of specific vegetation and habitat characteristics will vary between the different sub-species of the sharp-tailed grouse. It is now believed that the savannah style habitat is the preferred location during the summer months and the brooding season in the autumn. This broad habitat is utilised during all four of the seasons for a variety of purposes. The selection of habitat can vary throughout the year with the key seasons of brooding, nesting, lekking and winter requiring different characteristics.
The dancing ground of the sharp-tailed grouse, or lek, usually consists of native flat vegetation. Occasionally, different habitats will be selected for lekking, including grazed hill tops, recent burns and cultivated lands. It is widely believed that the distribution of leks is directly influenced by the tall vegetation surrounding the area. If vegetation surrounding the lek becomes too tall, the areas are often permanently abandoned by the grouse. When lekking arenas are compromised by encroaching woody vegetation, it is common for the displaying males to completely disregard the area and move to more suitable habitats. Ridges and hilltops are excellent areas for leks. Males tend to select any area that has a good and unobstructed viewing range.
Of all the environments and habitats that will be sought by sharp-tailed grouse, the nesting habitat is the most important. The habitats can vary greatly, depending on the subspecies of the bird. Most prairie sharp-tailed grouse nest can be found in dense brush or at the edge of marshes in woods. The Columbia sharp-tailed grouse has been observed selecting shrub stands with much taller and denser shrubs. More dense residual vegetation was chosen by the plains sharp-tailed grouse. However, the general conditions for nesting are thought to include densely populated areas with tall vegetation. There is usually some woody vegetation surrounding the nesting areas. The concealment properties of shrub steppe habitats are thought to be a sharp-tailed grouse hen’s ideal location for nesting. Hens in Alberta, Canada have been observed selecting taller and denser habitats.
Sharp-tailed grouse chicks do not need their mothers to feed them, are born with their eyes open and are immediately self reliant, making them a precocial species. Soon after the last chick has hatched, the mother and the brood normally leave the nest in search of a regular food source and sufficient cover. Characteristics for brooding include shrubs for hiding, short vegetation somewhere nearby for feeding and large amounts of forbs. This is one of the reasons nests are located close to shrub communities. A brood uses the protection afforded by shrubs for protection from airborne predators and direct sunlight. Broods are often observed in open habitats as this type of location is usually abundant with insects for the young and vegetation for the hen to feed on. The types of habitat preferred by broods of sharp-tailed grouse are often dependent on factors such as available space, the weather and the time of day. Multiple brooding environments can be used in a single day, depending on the activity.
Sharp-tailed grouse will often seek out denser habitats for increased thermal insulation. The birds have been observed utilising thicker edge habitats in parts of the United States, in readiness for the cold winter months. The grouse often select winter habitats where open space and thick cover are never too far away from each other. The severe winter weather has led to flocks of grouse forming packs by joining together. They will move together to find shelter from open prairie to croplands such as corn fields and fields of sunflowers. The depth of the winter’s snow is known to greatly affect habitat selection. With more snow, the sharp-tailed grouse move from more open areas to the cover of woody vegetation. They burrow into large snow banks to remain warm through cold and bitter nights.