The Gunnison sage-grouse gets another crack at the Endangered Species List

A female Gunnison sage-grouse. Photo by Shell Game/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Like most North American birds, the Gunnison sage-grouse is gearing up for breeding and nesting season. These birds, though, kick things off with a bit more zest than many other species, with a courtship display that is elaborate, unique, and extravagant. The males attract females by calling and strutting around while flapping their wings. But what they’re best known for is inflating two yellow air sacs on their white breasts and making a popping sound. It is one of the bird world’s great spectacles   a true sight to be seen   but it may not exist for long. 

For years scientists had lumped the Gunnison sage-grouse in with other grouse species. About a dozen years ago, after they realized the Gunnison’s crown plumes and mating display made them unique, a new species was named—the first new bird species identified in the United States in more than a century. The scientists, however, enjoyed their excitement only briefly, since they quickly realized that Gunnison sage-grouse populations were alarmingly low and that the bird’s sagebrush habitat was compromised by development. 

This past January, in response to a 2010 lawsuit and with the Gunnison sage-grouse population down to fewer than 5,000 individuals, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed listing the bird for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The agency has until September of this year to make a decision. 

This isn’t the first time the grouse has been considered for ESA protection. In 2006, the USFWS considered the species for listing but decided against doing so. Its’ reasoning, according to the New York Times, was that their population of 5,700 individuals had remained stable for the previous 10 years.

The Gunnison sage-grouse’s decline stems from the rapid development of their sagebrush habitat for residential use, irrigated agriculture, livestock grazing, and expanded roadways and infrastructure. Today, six genetically distinct populations exist in Colorado, and one in eastern Utah, although roughly 80 percent of the population is found in western Colorado’s Gunnison Basin. As their habitat faces continued exploitation, the threats of inbreeding and a loss of genetic variability loom.

Within this doom and gloom, there is hope. In addition to the ESA listing, the USFWS proposed protecting 1.7 million acres on habitat crucial to the species. Historically, Endangered Species Act listings have revived many bird populations. As the Times points out, an intensive conservation effort brought the California condor   North America’s largest birdback from 30 individuals in the 1970s to more than 400 birds today. Conservationists hope that endangered-species listing could mean the same brighter future for the Gunnison sage-grouse.


Take our short quiz below to test your knowledge on this unique bird. Be sure to check your answers under the photograph.


1. True or false: The Gunnison sage-grouse is two-thirds the size of the greater sage-grouse.

2. Which of the following is not a source of food for the Gunnison sage-grouse?

a. Insects

b. Flowers

c. Small rodents

d. Fruit

3. Besides habitat loss, the greatest current threat to the Gunnison sage-grouse is:

a. Drought in the west

b. Wildfire

c. Oil and gas development

d. Invasive beach vitex growth

4. The following is a call of the Gunnison sage-grouse:

a. Hoots

b. Pops

c. Clucking and cackling

d. All of the above

5. The Gunnion sage-grouse has a clutch size of how many eggs?

a. 1 egg

b. 2-4 eggs

c. 5-6 eggs

d. 7-9 eggs


Sagebrush habitat in Montana. Photo by USFWS/ CC BY 2.0

Answers to the quiz: 

  1. 1. True. The Gunnison sage-grouse is much smaller than the greater sage-grouse, about the size of a chicken. Before being identified as its own species, the Gunnison sage-grouse was most commonly mistaken for the greater sage-grouse. 
  2. 2. (C) Small rodents. The Gunnison sage-grouse’s diet consists of insects, flowers, buds, leaves, fruit and stems, according to All About Birds. 
  3. 3. (A) Periods of prolonged drought have occurred in the west, which are said to reduce their reproductive output. Their small population size makes them susceptible to environmental weather events. 
  4. 4. (D) All of the above. The males make hooting and popping noises during mating displays, and both sexes make clucking and clacking noises. Check out their call on All About Birds
  5. 5. (D) 7-9 eggs. These birds have rather large clutch sizes, and lay their nests on the ground. Incubation lasts for 27 or 28 days, but Gunnison sage-grouse have rather low nesting success, about 43 percent for birds in the Gunnison Basin. Chicks are precocial, meaning they are able to leave the nest within several days after hatching. 
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