Sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus)

Synonyms: Tetrao phasianellus
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderGalliformes
FamilyPhasianidae
GenusTympanuchus (1)
SizeLength: 41 - 47 cm (2)
Weight0.6 - 1 kg (2)

The sharp-tailed grouse is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Native to North America, the sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) is famed for its elaborate courtship display, which is imitated by Native Americans during their traditional dances (2). It is a medium-sized grouse that is described as being chicken-like in appearance (2) (3). The body of the sharp-tailed grouse is round and it has short legs (2). This species has a short crest on the head and the short tail has elongated central feathers (2) (3), giving the tail a pointed or ‘sharp’ appearance (4).

The sharp-tailed grouse is a cryptically coloured species, with its upperparts being barred with dark brown, black and buff (2). Its underparts are white, and the upper belly feathers display small, dark brown V-shaped marks. Both the male and female sharp-tailed grouse have a crescent-shaped, yellowish-orange comb over each eye. The feet of the sharp-tailed grouse are brownish-black and the bill is grey (2).

The male sharp-tailed grouse is heavier than the female, and can be identified by the dark markings that run vertically along the central tail feathers, as well as by the pinkish to pale violet air sacs on the sides of the neck, which are inflated during courtship (2). Juveniles of this species are similar in appearance to the female, but are generally greyer and have a whiter throat (2).

Although similar in appearance to the greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) and the lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus), the sharp-tailed grouse can be distinguished by the dark V-shaped marks on the underparts, the elongated central tail feathers, and the colour of the air sacs in the male (2).

As part of the sharp-tailed grouse’s vocal array, both sexes produce a cluck when taking flight, sometimes described as a ‘whucker-whucker-whucker’ or ‘up-up-up’ sound. During courtship, the male produces a variety of vocalizations which have been variously described as hoots, cackles, squeaks, coos and gobbling noises (2) (3) (4).

There are currently seven recognised subspecies of the sharp-tailed grouse, one of which is believed to be extinct (2) (5) (6). The northern forms are generally darker in colour and include the Alaska sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus caurus), the north-western sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus kennicotti), the northern sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus phasianellus) and the prairie sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus campestris).

The paler southern forms are the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus), plains sharp-tailed grouse(Tympanuchus phasianellus jamesi) and the extinct New Mexico sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus hueyi) (2) (5).

The sharp-tailed grouse once ranged though much of northern and central North America, with its distribution stretching from Alaska, south through the western parts of Canada, and as far south as Nevada and California. While the eastern and southern populations of the sharp-tailed grouse have greatly declined, it can still be found in Alaska and central Canada, south to Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado. It can also be found in Wisconsin and Minnesota (2).

With a preference for fairly open, relatively treeless areas, the sharp-tailed grouse can be found in steppe, grassland and mixed shrub habitats (2) (5). In winter, this species will also use woodlands, and it is known to use grain fields and wetlands in parts of its range (2).

An omnivorous species, the sharp-tailed grouse feeds on a range of food items, with its diet varying depending on the location and season (2) (5). In spring and summer, its diet consists mainly of forbs, grasses, fruits, flowers and also insects (2). Buds, seeds, plant matter and fruit are eaten during the winter. This species is primarily a ground forager, but may also forage in trees and bushes (5).

The sharp-tailed grouse is a lekking species, with males gathering at lek sites in spring to perform spectacular courtship dances to attract the females, and in autumn to re-establish territories and dominance hierarchies (2) (5). Lek sites with short, sparse vegetation are preferred, and the males gather in the early morning and remain on the lek for two to three hours (5).

During the courtship dance, the male sharp-tailed grouse will adopt a bent-forward posture with the tail erect and throat sacs inflated, and will rush forward or in circles while stamping the feet, rattling the tail feathers and calling (2) (5). Between these bouts of movement, the male will freeze, and the males on a lek will often dance and freeze in perfect synchrony (2) (5).

Female sharp-tailed grouse visit the lekking sites between April and May, and an individual female may make up to ten visits and also visit multiple leks before selecting a mate (2). After mating, the female will construct a nest from moss, grasses, ferns and other plant material, and line it with more plant matter as well as breast feathers (2). The nest is often placed under small shrubs or trees, and the male plays no part in nest construction or raising the young (2).

Up to 12 eggs are usually laid, and these are incubated by the female for 21 to 23 days. The chicks are well developed, and can leave the nest a short time after hatching to forage with the female (2). While the female usually produces only one brood per year, a second breeding attempt may be made if the first brood is lost (2).

Outside of the breeding season, the sharp-tailed grouse is highly social and forms flocks of up to 30 individuals (2). It roosts on the ground or in trees, or, if the snow is sufficiently deep, in horizontal burrows beneath the snow. The sharp-tailed grouse does not undertake migrations, and generally its flights are less than 100 metres. This species is known to live for up to 7.5 years (2).

Historically an important food source for Native Americans and early settlers, the sharp-tailed grouse is still a popular game bird today. While the number of birds hunted varies between the states, there is currently no evidence to suggest that its populations are negatively impacted by hunting (2). The overall population of the sharp-tailed grouse is, however, believed to be in decline (7), with the New Mexico subspecies (T. p. hueyi) already having become extinct (6).

Habitat loss is currently considered to be the main threat to the sharp-tailed grouse, with much of its suitable habitat having been converted for intensive agriculture and livestock use (5). The natural fire regime of the land has also been interrupted, which has further altered this species’ habitat. In addition, the sharp-tailed grouse is vulnerable to pesticide use, both directly due to poisoning, and indirectly through the chemicals affecting the bird’s nervous system and its ability to escape to escape from predators (5). Herbicide use may also negatively impact populations by reducing the amount of vegetation available for feeding and cover (2) (5).

The sharp-tailed grouse is vulnerable to disturbance, with human presence known to displace males from lekking sites and so reduce in mating opportunities (2). Natural predation may also impact on sharp-tailed grouse populations, with a number of species such as the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) predating on its eggs, while others such as the coyote (Canis latrans) may also take the adults and chicks (2).

Due to the sharp-tailed grouse’s popularity as a game bird, its populations are carefully monitored and managed in many states (2). It is recommended that hunting should be prohibited where populations are small, isolated or declining. The sharp-tailed grouse is protected in five states in the U.S., with the Columbian subspecies (T. p. columbianus) protected under the Endangered Species Act (2).

Some manipulation of the vegetation in its habitat can be beneficial to the sharp-tailed grouse, with mowing of the lek sites in summer shown to enhance mating displays the following spring (5). The removal of brush and trees to maintain the relatively open habitat required by sharp-tailed grouse can also be beneficial (5).

Land management practices that increase or protect food sources are recommended, such as the planting of bromegrass (Bromus spp.), alfalfa (Medicago spp.) or sweet clover (Melilotus spp.). The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has been beneficial to some sharp-tailed grouse populations, by providing this species with suitable feeding and breeding habitat while compensating land owners for these conservation measures (2).

Future measures for the conservation of the sharp-tailed grouse include educating land owners and the public on the habitat requirements of this species, and also providing land owners with suitable incentives to improve their land for sharp-tailed grouse. Translocations to re-establish this species in former areas of its range may also be an option, although such attempts have largely failed in the past (2).

Find out more about the sharp-tailed grouse:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
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  1. IUCN Red List (January, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Connelly, J.W., Gratson, M.W. and Reese, K.P. (1998) Sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/354
  3. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Sharp-tailed grouse (January, 2012)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Sharp-tailed_Grouse/id/
  4. Smith, C.S. (2000) Field Guide to Upland Birds and Waterfowl. Wilderness Adventure Press, Belgrade.
  5. Marks, R. (2007) Fish and Wildlife Habitat Management Leaflet: Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus). Natural Resources Conservation Service and Wildlife Habitat Council. Available at:
    http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs143_022164.pdf
  6. Dickerman, R.W. and Hubbard, J.P. (1994) An extinct subspecies of sharp-tailed grouse from New Mexico. Western Birds, 25: 128-136.
  7. BirdLife International - Sharp-tailed grouse (January, 2012)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=301