Spring is display season for native gallinaceous birds
Springtime, finally, is upon us. With the welcome warmth, the snow and ice-melt, and eventual green-up, comes the much-anticipated return of migrant birds. Streaming into the Northland are such avian friends as red-winged blackbirds, already filling the cattail marshes with their "kong-ka-ree" songs.
In as much as the arrival of birds such as great blue herons, sandhill cranes, eastern bluebirds and rough-legged hawks has come to signal for us the change of seasons, so too is these birds' contribution to our spiritual well being. From robins to meadowlarks and trumpeter swans to common goldeneyes, the homecoming of these birds and others are worth the wait.
Some birds, however, have never left and have been here the whole winter. In the case of Minnesota's native gallinaceous birds like the ruffed grouse, prairie chicken, sharp-tailed grouse, spruce grouse and wild turkey, spring is a time of gathering, courting, drumming, dancing, displaying and strutting. Spring is Showtime for these fascinating species of birds.
Sometimes called the "drummer of the woods," the male ruffed grouse performs exuberantly. Usually choosing a log or stump to display from, a male ruffed grouse will use his tail to prop and support himself as he begins a series of rapid wing-beats against the air. The muffled thumps -starting slow and culminating in a loud and fast wing-beat, followed by a brief resting period - sound like an old tractor.
Drumming has a purpose, of course. The sound serves as both a territorial call to other males to stay away and as a calling card for receptive hens. You might say the male is trying to "drum up" a mate. The drumming behavior is always performed during the springtime breeding season, though sometimes is performed in the autumn as well.
Another grouse, though not a forest dwelling grouse, is the greater prairie chicken.
Pioneers had observed countless numbers of prairie chickens on the expansive grasslands long ago. Prairie chickens gather in large groups on their traditional "booming grounds" each spring. Found in prairie habitats throughout Minnesota's northwest, prairie chickens depend on prairie grasslands for their survival.
Booming grounds refer to the males' incredible booming sounds they create when they inflate the bright yellow-orange air sacs located on the sides of their necks. The hoots and moans produced during the dawn performances, which are created to attract hens, have an eerie and haunting quality.
Males also erect special neck feathers, called pinnae, during their foot-stamping and musical courtship displays.
Each spring across parts of northern Minnesota's mixed grasslands and brush country, another avian dance is performed by a different "prairie grouse."
The dance, performed by male sharp-tailed grouse, is like no other performance. And while it's only the males that dance, the outwardly uninvolved females are very mindful of the rich auditory and visual subtleties performed by each of the male birds. Seemingly chaotic, the dance is anything but disorder.
In the springtime, sharp-tailed grouse gather in large groups on "leks," or dancing grounds, where males perform courtship dances to attract mates. With pointed tails held erect, clicking tail feathers, and wings extended laterally while stamping their feet, the male birds strut and jump about as they vocalize an amazing repertoire of assorted clucks, cackles and coos. As many as two dozen or more males and females will gather on traditional leks if the grounds are undisturbed from the year before.
Spruce grouse, as their name implies, are birds that inhabit primarily spruce forests across the northernmost regions of Minnesota. A docile bird often tolerating close encounters with humans and other animals, the bird is sometimes called "fool's hen" or "fool's grouse."
A striking looking, darkish bird with white bands across its breast and colorful heads, the male of the species struts turkey-like by fanning its tail feathers during the spring breeding season.
Loud "claps" are produced from their wings beating against the air during courtship and territorial displays. Male spruce grouse will also suddenly rise into the air and fly about noisily around a tree while producing a drumming sound with their wings. This action is then followed with a quick return to the ground to strut and display in front of a curious hen.
Lastly, the well-recognized displays and performances of male wild turkeys - the puffed out feathers, the fanned tail, and the gobbling vocalizations - also serve a purpose. During the spring breeding season adult males compete with other males for the attention of hens.
Male turkeys establish "strutting zones" and will aggressively defend these areas from other males. Though a true woodland bird, during the mating season these displays are performed where they can be easily seen, such as forest openings, field edges and along trails.
Toms, or gobblers as they are also called, are the males of the species and grow larger than hens. Juvenile males are called jakes.
Depending on the subspecies, wild turkeys can attain weights of well over 20 pounds and body lengths of up to four feet.
The wattles on the throats of gobblers are colored brilliant red and blue. Long, hair-like tufts of feathers called beards, while also growing on hens, are much longer on gobblers, especially older birds.
Now is the time to observe and appreciate Minnesota's native gallinaceous birds. Perhaps unremarkable throughout most of the year, these birds are nothing short of extraordinary during the months of March, April and May.
Indeed, while other birds are flocking back north, don't forget about the birds that never left home as you get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org