Who isn’t a little weird? Here at the Center for Biological Diversity, we celebrate peculiarity in every one of its human and animal forms. After all, who’d want to live in a world without weirdness?
Male Greater Sage Grouse: Cock of the Walk — er, Dance
In this installment of Save the Weirdos: the wing-swishing, air-sac-burping, sexually promiscuous and very cocky sage grouse cock — who can dance like nobody’s watching (except a bevy of potential mates).
You know the dude who strolls up in the club — dressed to the nines and oozing (over)confidence — and takes over the dance floor with a bunch of flamboyant, and often freaky, moves? You should be annoyed, but instead you’re kinda enthralled.
Welcome to the life of the female sage grouse, or hen, during mating season. That’s when the dancing male sage grouses strut their stuff in elaborate mating displays. The birds’ dancing occurs in singles spots called “leks,” flat expanses of grass that are designated dancing grounds for males to show off to females every year (a little like clubs, but without the light shows or DJs — or walls). We admit we’re not sure how enthralled (vs. annoyed) the hens really get. But we do know one thing: the dances are far out.
Forget jitterbugging, bunny-hopping, skanking, krumping, popping or locking: The male greater sage grouse’s dance is way weirder. Because…
* No human male has a gigantic, bulbous yellow esophageal air sac in his chest that he can expand and contract to accentuate his movements. (We call them “chesticles.”)
* Human dancers don’t usually produce weird, clamorous acoustics, both vocal and nonvocal, while dancing. We don’t emit odd pops and whistles, low-frequency coos, wing-swishes or the peculiar, loud burping noise of air being expelled from a bulbous yellow esophageal sac.
* Even bedecked with bling, human males don’t possess the showy, extravagant stylings of a male sage grouse’s white-striped starburst tail; huge, fluffy white chest; wide, flapping wings; tall, wispy back-of-the-neck feathers… or — you guessed it — humongous yellow air sac as it’s puffed out and contracted rhythmically.
Finally, there’s the male sage grouse’s raw star power. If one of these guys is in the groove, he’s almost impossible for a hen to resist.
Female sage grouses aren’t usually watching one male dance in a lek but dozens simultaneously (again, much like in a nightclub, though sage grouses usually dance at dawn, not till dawn). But over days of dancing, only one or two of all these males usually garners female attention, gravitating toward the center of the lek. And if this dominant cock is courting a particular hen, she’s pretty much guaranteed to succumb to his charms — i.e., mate with him.
And a lot of other hens will follow suit — often as many as eight, and sometimes many more. Fun fact: Biologists once recorded a single male sage grouse mating 37 times with 37 different females — and, by coincidence, all that mating took 37 minutes. Such stellar success isn’t all that uncommon for the top male(s) at a lek (although the “37” thing probably is).
After mating, the male sage grouse totally skips out on his partners. He’s got places to go, grouses to see. Males are nearly twice the size and weight of females, so female grouses would probably have a hard time forcing a male to hang around their nests. But they seem to have no problem going off by themselves to lay their eggs and raise their broods.
And next year the hens will probably be back to the same lek (if they like it) to scope out more dancing males, who’ll do their strutting, popping, swishing and chesticle-inflating all over again.
Unfortunately, even with such splendid mating rituals, the weirdly spectacular greater sage grouse are in severe decline, mainly due to habitat fragmentation and development.
Want to help us save these birds (specifically, the Mono Basin sage grouse, one of the most endangered populations) and other imperiled weirdos around the world? Join our email list, donate if you can, and make sure to LIKE this article (just click the ❤ symbol to the lower left).
Finally, here’s our video of the sage grouse’s bosom-bouncing dance moves. Are you enthralled yet?