Sharp-tailed Grouse on the Iron Trail
The sharp-tailed grouse is a member of the grouse family and is characteristic of “brushland” habitats of northeastern Minnesota. At one time a common bird of the state’s prairies, sharp-tailed grouse have declined significantly due to changing habitat conditions. Reasons for their decline include large-scale land conversion, succession of brushlands into forest, reforestation of brushland habitats and an absence of fires that tend to maintain brushland.
The Iron Trail region has two sharp-tailed grouse blinds open to the public and available by reservation through the Minnesota DNR. They are surveyed by DNR wildlife managers every year.
As a game bird, the sharp tailed grouse is popular among hunters who use pointing dogs to locate them during the fall hunting season. The annual harvest of sharp-tailed grouse has declined from over 100,000 in the 1940’s to about 5000 in recent years.
These grouse are about the size of a hen pheasant, with a sandy brown mottled body that is lightly speckled with brown on the belly. In contrast, a prairie chicken has a heavily barred breast and it is darker brown above. The males have purplish neck sacs that are inflated during the courtship displays. Their tail feathers all end as a pointed tip and this is the feature that gives them their name. In contrast, a prairie chicken has a squared off tip to its tail.
The vegetarian diet of this grouse is comprised of items like bearberry, rose hips, wild buckwheat, Labrador tea, blueberry and leatherleaf.
Although it is possible to see sharp-tailed grouse in brushlands as they fly from night roosting sites to daytime feeding areas, the most memorable way to experience them is to watch at close range from a blind on one of their spring dancing grounds, called “leks.” Leks are on open grassland or old-field sites that are usually slightly higher than the surrounding countryside. Males fly to the lek before sunrise and begin their elaborate dancing displays to attract the hens. The dancing continues until about 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning. It can be observed from March through May, with a peak of activity in April. The birds are most active on days with little wind.
The courtship dance includes cackling and cooing by the male, a rapid pattering of feet as it rotates its body and a rattling of wing quill feathers on its outspread wings. The neck sacs are inflated, the head is extended forward, the tail is pointed skyward. The dance is highlighted by leaps into the air among fighting males as they compete for prime territory in the lek. Hens wander throughout the lek and eventually select a mate. After mating, they nest in the nearby grasslands. The nest contains about 12 olive, buffy or brownish eggs, which hatch after 23 or 24 days. The precocial young leave the nest shortly after hatching.
Sharp-tailed dancing grounds should be visited cautiously to make sure they are not disturbed during the dancing process. The best way to watch sharptails is from a “blind” that has been previously placed on the lek. Schedule your visits so you are in the blind by 4:00 am. Several blinds are available at no charge to the public at various locations. The contact wildlife managers and their phone numbers are shown here. Reservations are mandatory and issued on a first come, first serve basis, so book your reservations well before the dancing season begins in March.
To reserve a sharp-tailed grouse blind please contact the Eveleth DNR office at 218-744-7448. So reserve your grouse blind early and discover why the Iron Trail is “A Great Way to Getaway!”
DNR Area Wildlife Office
2005 Highway 37
Eveleth, MN 55734