The sharp-tailed grouse have put on their dancing shoes! The males, that is. As dawn breaks across the grasslands over much of North Dakota from roughly April through May, the sounds of what can be described as the faint muffled hammering of a jackhammer along with an abundance of clucking and cackling can occasionally be heard off in the distance. Those sounds, which may carry for a half a mile or more, announce the annual courtship displays of the male sharp-tailed grouse. The objective, of course is to impress the judges, the hens, that they are the best mate around.
Perhaps up to a dozen or more males, all spruced up for the dance, will gather on a dancing ground or what biologists call a lek, an area often located on relatively level upland prairie with good views of the surrounding landscape. Some of you may have happened upon a lek while walking across a tract of prairie during the spring. An abundance of grouse droppings in an area where the vegetation is patted down is a sure sign of a lek.
When a female approaches the lek the males go into a dancing frenzy to impress her. They stretch out their wings, tail pointed upwards, heads low and forward, and their lavender throat sacks inflated. Then they stomp the ground like a jackhammer and move forward, perhaps turning in different directions all while uttering clucking and hooting sounds. The competition is intense, and the stakes high. Once the hen has made her choice and left, things may settle down. That is until another hen approaches, and the scene is repeated anew.
If there is a dancing ground within perhaps a half-a-mile or so from your home, if you listen carefully around dawn, you may hear what sounds like the sounds of muffled jackhammering sounds and the associated vocalizations.
Most of us probably live within a short drive of a sharp-tailed grouse dancing ground. If you cannot get a look at some local sharp-tailed grouse on their dancing grounds you might want to contact one of the national wildlife refuges. Some of them have observation blinds for the public to get out and watch the grouse. Be on the lookout for announcements in your local news.