Right now, the world seems frozen and frightening, but in nature, life goes on. As the sagebrush steppe thaws and spring draws near, an ancient phenomenon is returning to the land. Sage-grouse are flocking to their breeding grounds, filling the landscape with their otherworldly sights and sounds.
Each morning in the darkness before twilight, the males gather at ancient breeding grounds called “leks.” Unearthly swishing, popping, and gulping sounds punctuate the cold, dark air (click the video above to hear it) and can travel up to two miles on a still morning. As the sunrise approaches, faint blue light illuminates the males fanning their tails and projecting yellow air sacs from their chests. Each patrols his patch of the dance floor, occasionally lunging at another male who comes too close.
A group of females arrive and the males’ enthusiasm boils into a frenzy of dancing and fighting, each hoping for a chance to mate. More often than not, the females appear indifferent and leave after a few minutes of polite boredom. But sometimes, a female will crouch in front of a male, spread her wings, and invite the most impressive male to mate.
After the hens leave, the males gradually lose energy. Their efforts grow weaker until their half-hearted dances are almost laughable. One by one, they fly off into the sagebrush steppe to forage on sagebrush leaves. If all goes well for the mated female, she'll lay a clutch of eggs in a nest carefully hidden below a sagebrush shrub.
This spectacle has gone on for 25 million years. It is a priceless treasure of the American West. We owe it to the sage-grouse—and ourselves—to keep it going.