- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular permanent resident; the Sharp-tailed Grouse was an uncommon species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
The Sharp-tailed Grouse is primarily distributed in the northern Great Plains. Its distribution spans from Nebraska and Colorado north to Saskatchewan and Alberta, west to Montana, and east to Michigan and Ontario. The highest densities are found in eastern Montana (Figure 1).
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 10/20 by Partners in Flight, designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Grains, seeds, buds, foliage, fruit, and insects, especially grasshoppers; variable depending on season and availability.
A sparsely-lined depression on the ground, usually concealed with overhanging vegetation.
The Sharp-tailed Grouse is the only indigenous prairie grouse in Minnesota (Roberts 1932; Berg 1997). Historically, there were 6 known subspecies in North America, and the Minnesota subspecies had been designated the “prairie race” (Tympanuchus phasianellus campestris) (Hoffman and Thomas 2007). However, recent genetic evidence suggests that many of the original subspecies have been found to be similar with, for example, little differentiation between the sharptails of the Great Plains (T. p. jamesi) and Minnesota’s, T. p. campestris (Spaulding et al. 2006). Berg (1997) emphasizes that even though it is called the prairie race, the species occupies grass, brush, savanna, and boreal peatlands in Minnesota.
Roberts (1932) described its historical distribution as “the prairies in the summer and … the brush-lands and open forests in the winter, and the early explorers and first settlers found it abundant everywhere.” In his summary of the species in Minnesota, Berg (1997) described its pre-settlement range in Minnesota as “occupied” throughout the state with the exception of western Minnesota, primarily from Pipestone County in the south to Wilkin and Otter Tail Counties in the north.
In the 1930s, Roberts emphasized that the “Prairie Sharp-tailed Grouse” (as it was formerly known) was “now confined largely to the northern part of the state from Pine County northward and westward in cut-over lands, in natural openings, and in brush areas, to the settled prairies of the west-central counties and the Red River Valley.” This is largely the same area still occupied by the Sharp-tailed Grouse today, though the population has declined even more within this range.
Roberts (1932) documented confirmed nests with eggs in the Pembina Valley on the Red River in 1873 and in Polk County in 1918 and 1920. Since the heading by Roberts’s account was labeled “Minnesota Nesting,” the Pembina valley breeding activity is assumed to be in Minnesota and not North Dakota.
In 1975, Green and Janssen emphasized the Sharp-tailed Grouse’s distribution as primarily in the northern regions and most numerous in the northwestern part of the state in Beltrami, Lake of the Woods, Marshall, and Roseau Counties. Both Roberts (1932) and Green and Janssen (1975) described its distribution as changed after prairies began to be converted to agricultural land and then colonized by the Greater Prairie Chicken. The Sharp-tailed Grouse retreated to the north. Green and Janssen described confirmed nesting in Aitkin, Lake of the Woods, Pine, Polk, and Roseau Counties, plus a 1942 nesting in Swift County in the west-central part of the state.
Janssen (1987) reinforced a distribution similar to that of Green and Janssen (1975) and noted that the Sharp-tailed Grouse had been recorded in 1968 in Cook County in extreme northeastern Minnesota. He suggested these were “vagrants” from a population in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Janssen documented confirmed nesting in 5 counties since 1970, including Aitkin, Beltrami, Lake of the Woods, Marshall, and Polk. A few years later, Hertzel and Janssen (1998) would add 3 more counties with confirmed nesting since 1970: Kittson, Pennington, and Roseau.
Berg (1997) summarized the breeding distribution of the Sharp-tailed Grouse in Minnesota as two disjunct populations. One population was highly associated with the Agassiz glacial lake bed in northwest Minnesota and the second with a combination of Aitkin, St. Croix, and Upham glacial lake beds in east-central and northeastern Minnesota. The latter also included the taconite ore tailing basins associated with iron mining operations.
The Minnesota Biological Survey (MBS) recorded 55 breeding season locations during its counts, which began in the late 1980s (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2017a). These locations are largely consistent with the two disjunct populations identified by Berg (1997). One population in northwest Minnesota had the most locations in Clearwater, Kittson, Marshall, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake, and Roseau Counties. The other population was more sparsely distributed and included locations in Aitkin, Carlton, northeastern Kanabec, and St. Louis Counties. Note that the MBS had not yet surveyed northern Beltrami, Koochiching, or Lake of the Woods Counties.
The participants in the MNBBA reported 566 records for the Sharp-tailed Grouse and reinforced the identification of two disjunct populations in the state (Figure 2). The species was found in 6.9% (337/4,857) of the surveyed blocks and in 5.4% (127/2,337) of the priority blocks (Figure 3; Table 1). A total of 16 confirmed nests were reported and probable nesting was included from 253 blocks. A total of 7 counties had confirmed nesting records, with new county records for Red Lake and St. Louis Counties, the latter in the former Iron Range mining lands.
The distribution of the MNBBA records illustrated a triangular area of northwestern Minnesota from Norman County to Koochiching County to Kittson County. The northeastern and east-central population in Minnesota included Aitkin, Carlton, Itasca, Kanabec, Pine, and St. Louis Counties. Several additional probable nesting observations were recorded from Big Stone, Lac qui Parle, and Chippewa Counties as well as possible records from Pope County in west-central Minnesota. No observations were recorded from Cook County, where possible vagrants from a Thunder Bay, Canada population had previously been observed, nor from Swift County in western Minnesota, where a nest was found in 1942. The latter, however, is near the possible nesting records in the western Minnesota counties such as the records in Pope County. Berg (1997) had previously identified the regions including Lac qui Parle, Pope, and Swift Counties as not occupied during pre-settlement times.
Berg (1997) emphasized that the species occupied less than one-third of its historic range in Minnesota. Similar retractions of the species’ range were described by Berg (1990) in Wisconsin and in Michigan. The Wisconsin breeding bird atlas from 1995–2000 included 53 records of the Sharp-tailed Grouse (Cutright et al. 2006). The authors emphasized that the populations are still a fraction of what they were historically. Michigan recorded a slight increase in confirmed nesting of the Sharp-tailed Grouse from 13 townships during its 2002–2008 breeding bird atlas, compared with 12 townships from its first atlas in 1983–1988 (Chartier et al 2013). They emphasized the species’ range is still considerably smaller than during pre-settlement times.
In their review of the Sharp-tailed Grouse in North America, Connelly et al. (1998) stated that the species originally occupied 21 states and 8 Canadian provinces. They identified extirpations of the species from the early 1900s to 1970 from California, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, and Oregon. The species’ distribution has also been greatly reduced in the southern regions of its range as well as in British Columbia, Colorado, and Utah. The primary reasons given by Connelly et al. were the conversion of native ranges to agricultural fields and habitat loss.
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.