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She's just not that into you: Male grouse mating dance mostly performative in the fall, says naturalist

All that work, yet no reward. That's naturalist Brian Keating's takeaway after witnessing male grouse trying to interest the females with a mating dance. It's all in vain, he says, because the ladies are not in the mood at this time of year.

Brian Keating notes the females are too smart to fall for it

Brian Keating and his wife were cycling near Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park late last month when they came across some spruce grouse. (Brian Keating)

All that work, yet no reward. That's naturalist Brian Keating's takeaway after witnessing male grouse trying to interest the females with a mating dance. It's all in vain, he says, because the ladies are not in the mood at this time of year.

Keating was cycling near Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park late last month when he came across some spruce grouse.

"At first glance, it just doesn't make sense," Keating told The Homestretch.

"But what my wife and I witnessed was definitely spring strutting behaviour that usually [comes before] the actual act of breeding. And we witnessed it with several spruce grouse."

Boys do a perch-running dance

It doesn't make sense because these birds mate in the spring, not the fall, Keating explains.

"The dance we witnessed is a ritualized strut, not at all like the high energy sharp-tailed grouse dance near Pincher Creek that I told you about this past spring. This is slow motion by comparison."

During the spring, the boys do a perch-running dance.

"Starting at one perch, he will flutter his wings and fan his tail. He then quickly jumps down, walks across the dancing ground to the next perch, where he flies up and does a similar display, looking around for any females that might have noticed his incredibly visual display," Keating said.

"He will then move to the next perch until he has completed his circuit, and then he starts all over again."

But as Keating notes, at this time of year the dance leads nowhere.

"The female is not physiologically ready to mate at this time of year. Good thing. Winter is coming, and nesting simply cannot happen," he said.

Male grouse think it's springtime in the fall when the number of daylight hours are comparable. The males perform mating rituals, but the females are not tricked. (Brian Keating)

Why would the male invest so much energy into a dead-end result?

The males are fooled into believing it's spring when the hours of daylight on a fall day match a day in the spring with a similar amount of daylight, Keating said.

"For a very short period of time, a little more than a week, the males are often tricked into thinking it's spring again. The females seem to know it's not really breeding season and just let the males show off, without showing much interest. Maybe it's just practising."


For more fascinating stories about Alberta's wildlife from naturalist Brian Keating, visit his website and check out these stories:

With files from The Homestretch

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