Sage Grouse Descriptions

Grouse Spouse

A large, showy male bird with a smaller, plainer female

© Steve Sherman Lone Wolf Photography

Meriwether Lewis described the sage grouse in detail at Fort Clatsop on March 2, 1806. Clark copied Lewis's writing, as usual, and added a few observations of his own which are bracketed and highlighted in red here. Differences in capitalization, as well as minor differences in spelling, are considered immaterial, as when Lewis drops one p from opposite while Clark adds the second p but drops the e. Otherwise, the comparisons illustrate a few of the small differences in judgment that could emerge between the two captains. Compare Lewis's sketch of the head of a male (below) with that of Clark's full image.

The [Heath Cock or] Cock of the Plains is found in the plains of Columbia and are in Great abundance from the entrance of the S. E. fork of the Columbia to that of Clark's river [from the enterance of Lewis's river to the mountains which pass the Columbia between the Great falls and Rapids of that river.].1     this bird [fowl] is about 2/3rds [3/4ths] the size of a turkey.    the beak is large short curved and convex. the upper exceeding the lower chap.2    the nostrils are large and the back black.    the colour is an uniform mixture of dark brown reather bordeing [bordering] on a dove colour, redish and yellowish brown with some small black specks.    in this mixture the dark brown prevails [provails] and has a slight cast of the dove colour at a little distance.    the wider side of the large [larger] feathers of the wings are of a dark brown only.    

"Cock of the Plains"

Drawing by Lewis, March 2, 1806

Large-headed bird

American Philosophical Society, Codex J, p. 107

the tail is composed of 19 feathers of which that in the center is the longest, and the remaining 9 on each side deminish by pairs as they receede from the center; that is any one feather is equal in length to one of an equa distant [equal distance] from the Center of the tail on the opposite Side.    the tail when foalded [folded] comes to a very sharp point and appears long in proportion [perpotion] to the body.    in the act of flying the tail resembles that of a wild pigeon.    tho' the motion of the wings is much that of the pheasant and Grouse.
they have four toes on each foot of which the hinder one is short. the leg is covered with feathers about half the distance between the knee and foot.    when the wings is expanded there are wide opening between it's feathers, the plumage being so narrow that it dose [does] not extend from one quill to the [an]other. the wings are also proportionably [propotionably] short, reather more so than those of the pheasant or grouse.

the habits of this bird are [is] much the same as those of the [Prarie hen or] grouse.    only that the food of this fowl is almost entirely that of the leaf and buds of the pulpy leafed thorn,3 nor do I ever recollect seeing this bird but in the neighbourhood of that shrub.    they sometimes feed on the prickley pear [(this sentence omitted by Clark)]. the gizzard of it is large and much less compressed and muscular than in most fowls; in short it resembles a maw4 quite as much as a gizzard.    when they fly they make a cackling noise something like the dunghill fowl.5 the following is a likeness of the head and beak [omitted by Clark].    the flesh of [this fowl] the cock of the Plains is dark, and only tolerable in point of favor. I do not think it as good as either [with] the Pheasant [or Prarie hen,] or Grouse.—    it is invariably found in the plains [omitted by Clark].—    The feathers about it's head are pointed and stif some hairs about the base of the beak.    feathers short fine and stif about the ears, [and eye.]    This is a faint likeness of the Cock of the plains or Heath Cock [compare Clark's drawing] the first of those fowls which we met with was on the Missouri below and in the neighbourhood of the Rocky Mountains and from to the mountain which passes the Columbia between the Great Falls and Rapids they go in large gangues or Singularly and hide remarkably close when pursued, make short flights, &c.

Sage Grouse in 2010

Sage grouse still inhabit some parts of Lewis and Clark Trail states Montana, Idaho, and Oregon, as well as Wyoming and Nevada. It thrives in comparatively smaller areas in North and South Dakota and Washington, as well as Colorado, Utah, California, and western Canada. However, large areas of sage grouse habitat in all of those states have been impacted by explorations and extractions of oil and natural gas, and the prospect is for increasing pressure from those industries that could threaten the survival of the bird. Even wind energy development is problematic. Sage grouse, which nest on the ground, will not raise their young near aerial structures like wind turbines, which often provide temporary perches for eagles and other avian predators on the hunt.

Furthermore, their preferred habitats are being taken over by cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum L.), which fuels searing wildfires that destroy the native sagebrush that the grouse depend on for food, especially in winter.6

Since the early decades of the 20th century, overall sage grouse numbers have declined by 90 percent, partly as a consequence of a 50 percent shrinkage in their sagebrush habitat. Early in March of 2010 the U.S. Interior Department rejected environmentalists' demands that the sage grouse be listed as a threatened or endangered species, on the grounds that higher priorities precluded such an action. Meanwhile, oil, gas, and wind energy industries continue to support research on sage grouse in the hope of meliorating the problems caused by their extractive intrusions.

1. Clark is referring to Celilo Falls and the Cascades of the Columbia, which are separated by the Cascade Range.

2. "Chap" is the wildlife biologist's name for the beak of a bird.

3. Lewis means the greasewood, Sarcobatus vermiculatus. A. Scott Earle and James L. Reveal, Lewis and Clark's Green World: The Expedition and its Plants (Helena, Montana: Farcountry Press, 2003), 205.

4. Webster (1806): "the ventricle of the stomach, the craw."

5. The common chicken.

6. Lewis and Clark would not have encountered cheatgrass anywhere in America because it was native to Europe and parts of Africa and Asia, and was accidentally introduced to the western hemisphere in the mid-1800s. It also is known in North America variously as thatch bromegrass, downy brome, early chess, and military grass.

This page is supported in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities