By Seth Owens
Winters are tough, especially those that are as long and brutal as this last one was. But it does eventually end, and as the last few snowdrifts melt out from the tree rows in May, spring has finally settled across the North Dakota prairies and it brings a rebirth of color, sounds, and smells to the state’s grasslands.
As the space between sunrise and sunset lengthens, prairie grouse across the state echo their displays towards the expanses of frosted grassland. With a small population of greater prairie chicken in the east, a smaller population of greater sage grouse in the west, and a vast patchwork population of sharp-tailed grouse filling the grasslands statewide, the spring lekking season has begun. The ancient behaviors and displays of North Dakota’s most common grouse species, the sharp-tailed grouse, are underappreciated and often unknown. Starting at the end of February and early March, large numbers of male sharptails congregate on lekking grounds. These grassland dancefloors are small swaths of trampled prairie grass that male grouse will use to impress a scrutinizing hen. With wings held low and wide, feet rapidly stomping, and purple air sacs filled, male sharptails compete with each other for the title of “Best Prairie Dancer.” Only the best males will find a female, the ones with two left feet won’t be so lucky.
Grouse leks occur throughout most of the state, where there are sharptail populations, there must be leks to display on in the spring. With a few early mornings, calm air, miles on backroads, and patience, you can locate a lek and be the audience to the prehistoric ballet that takes place across North Dakota’s grasslands. If you’d like to experience a grouse lek next spring, North Dakota Pheasants Forever will viewing opportunities in spring of 2024.
Though their displays may not be as athletic, pheasants also are crowing across the state. Around dawn and dusk, it’s not uncommon to hear the two-part crow with a Kraah-Krak! that echoes across their territory. If you’re close enough, you’ll hear the thumping of wingbeats following their declaration of ownership on that select spit of prairie. If they are challenged, a flurry of red and gold is soon to follow as two roosters duke it out.
If the male is an especially good fighter or just exceptionally loud, it won’t be long until he finds a few hens to escort. The male’s maroon breast, blue-green head, scarlet face, and long golden tailfeathers may make him more obvious, but a second look will often reveal a straw-colored hen or two slinking through the wheat stubble.
Songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, and others have returned from their warmer winter ranges. The grasses and forbs that create the foundation of our entire prairie ecosystem are also starting to return to life as the landscape shifts from shades of beige to a variety of greens. The whitetail and mule deer does that made it through the winter may also be waddling through a field, looking like they are about to pop. Fox vixens are working hard to tend to several rough-and-tumble kits, wrestling and playing just outside of their dens. Blue-winged teal hens are likely attended by at least a few drakes as they rummage through the abundant ditches for aquatic invertebrates.
It won’t be long until you catch the glimpse of a hen escorting chicks through a labyrinth of mixed grasses. Wildflowers will soon speckle the prairie, filling your eyes and nose with the sights and scents of spring. It won’t be long until you see little golden ducklings taking their first dip into the filled wetlands. Soon you’ll see the speckled brown coat of a whitetail fawn jump into the trees as its mother gives a snort and a foot stomp of distrust toward you. Soon you’ll hear a chorus of songbirds, one on nearly every fencepost, cattail, tree, and stiff blade of grass, each pouring their heart into their song echoing across the expanse. Orange and black monarchs will soon lay their eggs on a milkweed plant, the first home, and meal for their striped caterpillars. It won’t be long until you see a jewel of a dragonfly alight onto a reed, hunting an unlucky mosquito. The paintbrush that colors the prairie works in the mediums of sound, smell, and color. Spring’s artist works off the snowy canvas of last winter.
Winter is often challenging, but the payoff for patience and resilience is evident as the snow melts, ice thaws, grasses grow, and life blooms across North Dakota. Winter’s water has recharged the habitat that shelters our spring observations and fall quarries.
I encourage you all to get out on a backroad and observe spring, firsthand. It’s the best reward for tolerating each brutal North Dakota winter. After all, spring will turn to summer, summer to fall, and then we’ll all be shoveling snow again. So take advantage of it while spring is here!
Seth Owens is a Dakota Edge Outdoors contributing writer and the Education and Outreach Coordinator for North Dakota Pheasants Forever.