The Bird That Struts Its Stuff

The Greater sage-grouse is a large bird that makes its living in sagebrush habitats across the western U.S. and Canada. Every year at this time, male sage-grouse perform a striking dance routine each morning at dawn. Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, breaks down the dance and describes challenges the birds face in Utah.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Up next, it's our Video Pick of The Week. And here with me, as always, is our managing editor and correspondent for video, Flora Litchman. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LITCHMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: You went on a...

(APPLAUSE)

FLATOW: You went on a local expedition for us.

LITCHMAN: I love Salt Lake City.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LITCHMAN: I just want to...

FLATOW: They love you, it sounds like. Tell us about your expedition.

LITCHMAN: We went on an adventure for this week's video pick, and we went looking for a local celebrity. But I actually was hoping to sound check that with you guys, maybe via applause-o-meter. Who in the audience has heard a sage-grouse?

(APPLAUSE)

LITCHMAN: Well, there you go. OK. And who here has seen a sage-grouse strut?

(APPLAUSE)

FLATOW: Whoa...

LITCHMAN: Wow. Pretty good.

Before we get more into this, I want to bring on our sage on sage-grouse. Jason Robinson is the upland game coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Thanks for joining us today and for being our tour guide for this week's Video Pick.

JASON ROBINSON: Thanks, Flora.

LITCHMAN: Describe what the strut looks like and why these birds do it.

ROBINSON: Well, it's kind of hard to explain, but I'll do my best. Basically a sage-grouse male has a white collar that's really bright. And what it does is they gather on this leks, and a lek is a location where males gather to kind of strut their stuff for the female hens.

And the males dance around a little bit, all puffed out, their tail feathers are all erect; they have very sharp pointy tail feathers, and they have these air sacs on their chest that they fill up with air and they rub their wings against those stiff feathers on the side and puff out to make kind of a unique noise that attracts the females, and hopefully is - makes them successful for mating.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: And we have a little clip of the noise of the sage-grouse while it's strutting and puffing up its chest. Can we hear that?

(SOUNDBITE OF SAGE-GROUSE'S PUFFING)

FLATOW: Oh.

LICHTMAN: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Can you do that one? Can you do that noise?

ROBINSON: You know, I've been asked several times to do that and I'm not able to.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

LICHTMAN: I'm Flora Lichtman.

FLATOW: And I'm Ira Flatow here at Salt Lake City talking about the sage grouse. You went on this expedition to look for one, right? And you found it right in the first - what did you got?

LICHTMAN: Unfortunately, no.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: No?

LICHTMAN: We did not see any sage-grouse despite Jason's excellent effort. We went all over, mountain to mountain, and we were totally unsuccessful. But our viewers...

FLATOW: The good news is...

LICHTMAN: Yeah. The good news is if you go to our website you can see them, thanks to Jason's agency, which has beautiful footage of these birds strutting it around. And they do this every year at this time, right?

ROBINSON: Right. Yeah. So they go to the same locations, year after year, for generations, and so we keep tracked to that information. You know, normally on a good day - we didn't have the best weather, but usually they're pretty predictable when they're going to be there and what times that sort of thing.

LICHTMAN: And these birds are facing some challenges here.

ROBINSON: They are. They're actually a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act. So there's a lot of conservation efforts to try and save sage grouse and keep the populations from declining.

FLATOW: Can I ask you a question? I found interesting - the video is up on our website at sciencefriday.com. And as part of the video - I watched your adventures, it was quite interesting - is - you said that it requires a huge range of area, lot of open space for it to be successful. Why is that? Why does it need so much territory?

ROBINSON: Well, kind of referencing that, sage-grouse are sagebrush obligate. That means they have to have sagebrush in order to exist, but not just a few plants. They need vast landscapes of sagebrush, anywhere from 10 to hundreds of square miles. And the main reason for that is sagebrush is arid. They don't get much precipitation. There's not a whole lot for them to eat so they're adapted to eat the sagebrush. So they need these large expanses to be able to fulfill the life requirements they have.

LICHTMAN: And they can even gain weight over the winter, you said, because they do so well.

ROBINSON: Yeah. So they're so highly adaptive to eating sagebrush, and sagebrush is actually quite nutritious, the leaves, that they can gain weight in the winter if they have enough sagebrush available.

LICHTMAN: So the populations are declining. Why can people still hunt these birds?

ROBINSON: Well, that's actually the question I get asked most often. And it's probably one of the more controversial things surrounding sage grouse. You know, our agency's primary goal and objective is to keep sage-grouse on the landscape. You know, we work very hard doing that.

One of the things to keep in mind is sage grouse (unintelligible) birds, who actually produce more young than will be able to survive. So some of those are going to die of predation, or starvation or other - other factors.

Here in the state of Utah, we actually harvest less than three percent of the total statewide sage grouse population. And one of the benefits that we get from that is we get a lot of data that we wouldn't get otherwise to help us manage the species.

We also have out sporting group, hunters or conservationists, and they're very good conserving species and being advocates for the species. In addition to that it also generates some funds for protection of habit, for hiring biologists to be spokesmen for sage grouse and for conservation.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, if you want to see Flora's great adventure out there, looking for the sage grouse, it's up on our website at sciencefriday.com. And also it's very funny.

LICHTMAN: Don't miss it - these birds are really striking.

FLATOW: They are. And I've never seen a sage grouse before, and it's really - I'm struck by how beautiful it is and how unusual is to see that. Thanks, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you, Jason Robinson, for being our tour guide today.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

FLATOW: It's up on our website at sciencefriday.com. That's about all the time we have. And so we want to thank the folks, everybody here at Grand Theatre at Salt Lake Community College, everybody at KUER - your local public radio station - for making it possible for us to be here.

(APPLAUSE)

FLATOW: Thank you. We want to thank all of you out in the audience. It's well-bunch of people here. It's - what a great record for us to set here in Salt Lake City. Thank you all. You all deserved a round of applause to yourself for coming out to see us today.

(APPLAUSE)

FLATOW: And if you missed any part of the program, or would like to see Flora's Video Pick of the Week, it's up there on our website. Also we podcast in this show, we have a Facebook page, we tweet all the time at SCIENCE FRIDAY. @scifri is our handle out there. And also you can take us along to join your - for anything that you carry along in one of those electronic devices that you have. Thank you again for coming out to see us today. We'll be back in New York. Thanks again. I'm Ira Flatow in Salt Lake City.

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