Group fights to save 'bizarre' endangered birds

An Alberta group trying to save the province's dwindling population of a spectacular bird is seeing modest benefits from its efforts.

An Alberta group trying to save the province's dwindling population of a spectacular bird is seeing modest benefits from its efforts.

A male sage grouse struts his stuff for a female as part of a springtime courtship dance. ((AP Photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service))

The sage grouse, a turkey-sized bird that makes otherworldly sounds during its elaborate mating rituals, numbers fewer than 100 in a small corner of southeast Alberta. Its North American population has nosedived as well, from 16 million a hundred years ago to 200,000 today, mostly in the United States.

The Sage Grouse Recovery Project, a joint effort of the Alberta and Montana governments as well as University of Calgary scientists, aims to relocate 220 female birds north from Montana over a four-year span. The group will bring the females to Alberta each year just before their spring mating season.

"We hope the majority of birds are going to hang around in the Canadian area, produce their own offspring and we can slowly start rebuilding the population here with new genetic material," said Judit Smits, a veterinarian and U of C professor.

Nine birds were brought up from the U.S. this spring, and while one died, another laid some eggs.

Smits said the prolonged winter weather and cool spring diminished the grouses' mating success, in part because there was "three feet of snow on the breeding sites about a month after we expected the breeding season to begin for them."

'Absolutely bizarre'

The sage grouse's mating rituals are unique. During the mating season, males gather in assemblies known as leks, where they strut about to intimidate other males and attract hens. The males inflate sacs on their chest with five litres of air, and the popping-and-clicking sound of them pumping the air and dancing about "sounds like aliens invading," said Brian Keating, the former head of conservation outreach at the Calgary Zoo. "It is absolutely bizarre."

The Alberta population of the sage grouse has plummeted as its habitat has been destroyed. Alberta's Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development estimates the bird once occupied 49,000 square kilometres of sage brush in the southeastern part of the province, but that by 1968, its habitat had fallen to just 4,000 square kilometres. Sage grouse numbers have collapsed more than 98 per cent since then.

The sage grouse is particularly sensitive to human development, Keating said.

"These birds don't go within 1.9 kilometres of a disturbed area, i.e. a gas well, so basically they're being pushed out of that area," he said.

While Smits and her group hold out hope they can save the endangered population, Keating is pessimistic.

"I think we'll see them disappear from Alberta. I don't think there's too much hope that they're going to stay here."