Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus)

Adult male sharp-tailed grouse displaying on mating grounds
Adult male displaying on mating grounds (Tom Munsen)
Category: Birds
Ecosystems: Shrubsteppe
State status: Endangered
Vulnerability to climate change (More details)

Moderate

If you see this species, please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting tool or email us at  wildlife.data@dfw.wa.gov. Be sure to include a photo of the species for verification and location (latitude/longitude coordinates) of your observation. 

The population size of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse in Washington is low. The statewide population of this grouse species is distributed in seven subpopulations that are not sustainable. Shortages of nesting, brood rearing, and wintering habitats are important factors limiting population recovery. Maintaining the species in Washington will require restoring habitat and increasing populations. 

Description and Range

Physical description

This species is considered a medium-sized grouse. The total length is 17 inches. Males are heavier than females. In both sexes, the body is round, with short legs, short crest, and elongated central rectrices (tail feathers). Head, neck, back, and wings are heavily barred with dark brown, blackish, and buff coloring, while breast feathers are white, with tawny drab margins. The upper belly feathers are white. When this species is observed on the ground, it exhibits a "frosty" appearance. Nostrils and legs are feathered. Both sexes have a crescent-shaped, yellowish-orange comb over the eye. The male is identified by pinkish to pale violet air sacs on each side of the neck (exposed and inflated only during courtship displays).

Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse in a birch tree in winter
Columbian sharp-tailed grouse in a birch tree in winter

Ecology and life history

Sharp-tailed grouse are a grassland and shrubsteppe species, and the Palouse prairie probably once supported the highest numbers in Washington. Diverse native grassland with sparse shrubs provides the best nesting habitat, but deciduous riparian habitat must be available in the area for overwintering. Sharp-tailed grouse will also use cropland near native habitat, such as wheat stubble and alfalfa, and this species benefits from the  U.S. Department of Agriculture Conservation Reserve Program

Good sharp-tailed grouse habitat contains a mix of perennial bunchgrasses, forbs, and a few shrubs. In Washington, riparian areas with deciduous trees and shrubs that provide cover, berries, seeds, buds, and catkins provide critical winter habitat when the ground is snow-covered. The most important trees and shrubs include water birch, serviceberry, chokecherry, rose, hawthorn, snowberry, cottonwood, and aspen. Some areas with suitable nesting and brood-rearing habitat may remain unused because the area lacks adequate winter resources.

During spring and summer, this species eats a variety of “forbs” (non-woody flowering plants), grasses, and insects. During late fall and winter, particularly after snow covers the ground, sharp-tailed grouse will move to areas with riparian deciduous cover where they often eat buds and fruits of deciduous trees and shrubs, such as water birch, serviceberry, hawthorn, and aspen.

Over a dozen Columbian sage-grouse brown and white, cylindrical droppings on dried grassy ground
Sharp-tailed grouse droppings

Males gather at leks in spring -- a lek is an assembly area where the grouse engage in courtship. At these sites, males perform elaborate dances to attract females for mating. Females nest under a grass clump or shrub and incubate a clutch of approximately 10 to 14 eggs. The chicks feed on insects, gradually shifting to more plant material. Young chicks are particularly vulnerable to predators. Maturing broods aggregate into flocks in late summer. Annual adult survival of non-hunted populations ranges from 30 to 60 percent, and the maximum lifespan reported is seven and a half years.

Geographic range

This grouse is the rarest race of sharp-tailed grouse. Seven remnant populations of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse remain in Douglas, Lincoln, and Okanogan counties. Washington populations may have once numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The total population now numbers fewer than 1,000 birds, and they occupy less than 5 percent of their historical range.

The map illustrates potential range and habitat distribution of this species in Washington. For maps of worldwide distribution and other species' information, check out  the International Union for Conservation of Nature - Red List and NatureServe Explorer.

Map of Washington showing boundaries of the burrowing owl potential range based on its habitat distribution occurring in 10 eastside counties: Adams, Chelan, Douglas, Ferry, Grant, Lincoln, Okanogan, Spokane, Stevens, Whitman.
WDFW State Wildlife Action Plan

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change

Moderate

Sharp-tailed grouse chicks experience high mortality rates during prolonged wet spring weather.  Overall sensitivity of this species is likely driven by habitat specialization (e.g., grassland or shrub-steppe). Habitat suitability for this species could decrease or shift in response to altered fire regimes, invasive species spread (i.e., cheatgrass), and changes in precipitation and hydrology that affect riparian winter habitat. 

Confidence: Moderate

Exposure to climate change

Moderate

  • Increases in spring precipitation
  • Altered fire regimes
  • Changes in precipitation overall
  • Increased invasive weeds
Confidence: Moderate

Conservation

This species is identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) under the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). SGCN-classified species include both those with and without legal protection status under the Federal or State Endangered Species programs, as well as game species with low populations. The WDFW SWAP is part of a nationwide effort by all 50 states and five U.S. territories to develop conservation action plans for fish, wildlife and their natural habitats—identifying opportunities for species' recovery before they are imperiled and more limited.
This species is identified as a Priority Species under WDFW's Priority Habitat and Species Program. Priority species require protective measures for their survival due to their population status, sensitivity to habitat alteration, and/or recreational, commercial, or tribal importance. The PHS program is the agency's main means of sharing fish and wildlife information with local governments, landowners, and others who use it to protect priority habitats for land use planning.

Conservation Threats and Actions Needed

WDFW research scientist holds a sharp-tailed grouse in shrubsteppe habitat in central Washington
A WDFW research scientist holds a sharp-tailed grouse translocated to central Washington to boost the state population
  • Agriculture and aquaculture side effects
  • Fish and wildlife habitat loss or degradation
    • Threat: Small populations, potential declining genetic health.
    • Action Needed: Population augmentation.

Resources

WDFW Publications

Other