This Sharptail Was Wired

Two male sharp-tailed grouse spar on a dancing ground. Males display to attract females for mating. (News Tribune file)

While hunting sharp-tailed grouse last week near Stanley, N.D., an unusual thing happened to me. I was alone with my yellow Lab, Lucy, hunting a portion of Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, a vast native prairie. Lucy got scent and flushed a single sharptail, which I shot.

When Lucy returned with the bird, I noticed it had a radio-collar and about a 9-inch antenna attached to it. The bird also had an aluminum band on one leg. Here’s a shot of the radio collar and the band, with a quarter alongside for perspective:

The collar had contact information printed on it, so I called it in to prairie grouse biologist Aaron Robinson with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Dickinson, N.D.

Robinson said this hen, banded and collared as an adult this past April, is part of a four-year research project to determine whether oil-drilling activity in the area is having any effect on the sharp-tailed grouse population. The area near Stanley is humming with oil development, as it has been for the past few years.

The bird I shot was one of 112 hens banded and collared this past April, Robinson said.

“We’re trying to be pro-active and see if we can figure out the mechanisms of change at a population level,” Robinson said. “My gut feeling is we’re not seeing an effect at this point, but we’re seeing behavioral changes that could lead to a population effect.”

Home ranges of birds in areas affected by the oil-field development are larger than those in a control-group at the Lostwood refuge, where no development is taking place, Robinson said. This coming year, Robinson will add another control-group in an area of agricultural activity, as opposed to the relatively untouched native prairie at Lostwood. He hopes to draw a more accurate comparison of grouse behavior with the addition of the farmland birds.

The radio collar, which weighs 10 grams (about .35 ounces), seemed to have no effect on the sharptail’s flight. The bird flushed and flew naturally, and I didn’t notice the collar or antenna until Lucy retrieved the bird to me.

The sharptails are trapped while on and near their leks, or dancing grounds, in the spring, Robinson said. They follow chicken-wire “leads,” like small fences, that lead them into a circular chicken-wire pen through a funneled entrance. They could get out of the pen, but it’s difficult for them to find the small opening in the funnel once inside.

Of the 112 hens banded this year, only 10 had broods, Robinson said. Good brood success would range from 40 to 50 percent, but not a lot of research has been done on sharptails, and Robinson doesn’t know for sure what normal or average brood success is, he said.

The birds’ movements are tracked by radio-telemetry either from an airplane or from a vehicle, Robinson said.

The bird I shot is the first hen to have been taken by hunting this fall, Robinson said, although several males, which had bands but not radio collars, also have been taken.

I’m permitted to keep the band from the bird I shot, but I’ll return the collar to Robinson. It’s worth about $200 and can be used again, he said.

Here’s an additional photo of Lucy retrieving a North Dakota  sharptail, although not the radio-collared bird: