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Natural Perspectives: Our trek to the lek

May 15, 2012|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
(Photo by Lou Murray )

Vic and I were in the Eastern Sierras a few weeks ago.

He was leading an Audubon birding trip, primarily to see greater sage-grouse on their courtship display grounds, which are called leks. The lek is just north of Crowley Lake, a few miles outside the town of Mammoth Lakes.

A lek is a flat grassy area that grouse choose for their springtime courtship. Males gather on the lek to strut their stuff, literally. They strut, stamp their feet, and inflate air sacs on their chests, making big booming sounds.

This attracts the females, who choose only the dominant males to mate with. Male and female grouse are called cocks and hens. The dominant male, called the master cock, mates with 80% to 90% of the hens.

Greater sage-grouse court and mate at dawn, so we needed to be at the lek before dawn to see their courtship. Since we were staying in Bishop, we had to get up at 4:30 a.m. to be there on time. Normally, a trip to the lek at that hour is a frigid one, but this year temperatures were downright comfortable. We had all shed our coats by the next stop on our birding itinerary.

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Greater sage-grouse are found only in sagebrush habitats of the Great Basin states of the American West. Unlike other grouse, they lack a muscular gizzard. This means that they can't digest seeds. So what they eat is sagebrush, which makes up 60% of their diet. During the summer, they supplement their plant diet with insects.

At one time, greater sage-grouse numbers were high — an estimated 16 million back in the year 1900. But in the 20th century, greater sage-grouse numbers plummeted to only about 200,000 at present.

One problem has been widespread expansion of coal, oil, and natural gas extraction in many Western states. This has affected their habitat and resulted in a decline of the population.

Many experts would like to see these grouse included on the endangered species list. But under the George W. Bushadministration, greater sage-grouse were denied protection under the Endangered Species Act by Julia A. MacDonald, an Interior Department deputy secretary. She was a civil engineer, not a biologist.

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