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Grouse in April

in Colorado, Nebraska 
and western Kansas

a collection of notes compiled by Armas Hill,
with photographs during Focus On Nature tours

April is an ideal time to observe groups of grouse performing at their leks.
Colorado, and nearby Nebraska and Kansas, 
are good places to see as many as 7 species of them. 


Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours in Colorado,
Nebraska, Wyoming, Kansas & Oklahoma

FONT Past Tour Highlights

A List & Photo Gallery of Birds of Colorado & Nearby States
in Two Parts
(this link to Part 1, including the Grouse)

The Dusky (formerly Blue) Grouse is one of the 7 species of grouse
to be seen in Colorado & nearby Kansas.
The others include the 2 species of Prairie Chickens,
Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater & Gunnison Sage Grouse,
and White-tailed Ptarmigan. 
Information about some of these follows. 
(above photo by Alan Brady)

There are 3 species in the "Prairie Chicken Group": the Greater Prairie Chicken, the Lesser Prairie Chicken, and the Sharp-tailed Grouse.  

There have historically been 3 subspecies of Greater Prairie Chickens
In the eastern United States, the subspecies T.c. cupido, called the "Heath Hen", occurred formerly in bushy habitat from Boston south to Washington. It was extirpated on the mainland about 1835. It continued to survive beyond that on the Massachusetts offshore island of Martha's Vineyard until it was last reported there in 1932. At that time, the eastern race of the Greater Prairie Chicken became extinct.

Another race of the species, in coastal Texas, is now very rare. T.c. attwateri, the "Attwater's Prairie Chicken" has declined in 30 years from 8,700 individuals in 1937 to 1,070 in 1967. After another 30 years, in 1998, only 56 individuals remained in 3 isolated populations. Even with released captive-reared birds, that subspecies is severely threatened.

The most wide-ranging of the Greater Prairie Chicken subspecies (and the one occurring in eastern Colorado and Nebraska), T.c. pinnatus, has declined over much of its range. The population in the late 1970's was estimated as 500,000. Due to its being in small isolated populations, the species overall is at considerable risk.

Greater Prairie Chickens at their lek at dawn,
photographed during the FONT tour in Colorado in 2009.

The following three photos are of Greater Prairie Chickens
where they displayed during an early morning in an alfalfa field.
(These photographs were taken during our April 2005 tour)


The Lesser Prairie Chicken has declined substantially since the European settlement of the Great Plains. That decline is thought to be over 90% since the 19th Century, and nearly 80% since the early 1960's. 
In 1980, Lesser Prairie Chickens occupied only 8% of their original range (which was historically throughout the southwest Great Plains, in southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas, western Oklahoma, northern Texas, and eastern New Mexico). Now, it is only in small, scattered populations.
The population estimate was about 50,000 birds in about 1980 (from 42,000 to 55,000 in 1979). 20 years later, in 1999, the population was estimated as 10,000 to 25,000, mostly in northwest Texas and Kansas.  


These two photos (above & below) are of Lesser Prairie Chickens 
in the early morning at their lek.  
(Photographs during the FONT April 05 tour.) 

There are 5 subspecies of Sharp-tailed Grouse. It now occurs in less than half of its original range in 9 U.S. states. It is now extinct in 8 U.S. states where it formerly occurred. In the northern part of its range (in Canada), it is fairly common. 

The Gunnison Sage Grouse is a newly-described species of the USA heartland. It is very localized with a range restricted to southwest Colorado and southeast Utah. It's thought to have formerly been more widespread (possibly in New Mexico, eastern Arizona, southwest Kansas, and Oklahoma).
Now the bird occurs in 6 or 7 counties of southwest Colorado and a single county in adjacent southeast Utah. The entire population is estimated at being less than 5,000 birds, with most (2,500-3,000) in the Gunnison Basin (of Colorado). Elsewhere populations number less than 300, with fewer than 150 in Utah.
It has disappeared from several population pockets since 1980, with an overall decline of over 60% in males attending breeding leks in the Gunnison Basin in the last 50 years.
Formerly considered a subspecies of the more-northerly Sage Grouse (now Greater Sage-Grouse),  Gunnison Sage-Grouse of both sexes have  plumages similar to that species, but are about 30% smaller. 

White-tailed Ptarmigan

A good source for information (such as that above) about the grouse is the book: "Pheasants, Partridges, and Grouse" by Steve Madge and Phil McGowan, 
published in 2002 by Princeton Univ Press.  

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