The Strut

Watching birds dance in the desert

Published online: Mar 24, 2020 Articles, East Idaho Outdoors Kris Millgate
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The air is frosty. Your breath is visible as it swirls around your ears in the predawn draft. You shove your hands in your pockets, tuck your chin inside your coat and start moving with purpose. You have a date with dancers in the desert.

The sky is dark purple as your boots crunch across dormant terrain. The last of winter still has its cold grip on the place in early spring. You move faster, more to stay warm than to hurry. You have 10 minutes to reach your destination in the dark, but you’ll make it just fine. The seam where sagebrush and stubble meet is less than a mile away. 

At the seam, you climb in a blind that was set up at sunset and you wait for sunrise. Its presence turns up just as you settle down. The sky warms to orange. Snow on the peaks pales to pink. Night retreats from the desert floor like a curtain lifting on stage.

You have a front row seat and in day’s first light, the first act begins. You silently lean toward an opening, a viewing window built into the blind. Your eyes strain to see in low light with little luck. The first act is for your ears, mostly. You can only make out a short silhouette with a fan attached. It’s about the size of a chicken and it fills your ears with the sound of popping champagne corks.

As the last shadows leave the land, your eyes engage while sun spotlights the dancers. Sage grouse. Males have the fan, tail feathers flared like a turkey only with pointed tips instead of rounded edges. The cork sounds are airbags on a male’s chest inflating and deflating. Never has a bag of hot air looked so beautiful. At least, that’s what the bird is going for when it struts through a harem of hens hoping to get lucky. It’s sage grouse mating season after all.

Truth be told, you’re the one who is lucky, lucky enough to witness the dance in the desert that’s getting harder to find. The sagebrush canopy is shrinking in the West. The sage grouse population is shrinking with it, but at this moment, in this blind, you are lucky. Even more so when a pronghorn antelope casually passes through the crowd of feathers. The pronghorn isn’t here to dance. It just wants a drink, maybe a grass snack too, then moves on.

You stay put until the grouse exhaust themselves in late morning. The closing act is a fight between two males trying to win a female right before retreating to the cover of brush for daylight naps. You retreat too, going back the way you came, leaving the blind. You’ll be back for an encore tomorrow morning. 

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