Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus)

Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus)

The Sharp-tailed Grouse, Tympanuchus phasianellus (previously: Tetrao phasianellus), is a medium-sized prairie grouse. It is also known as the sharptail and is known as “fire grouse” or “firebird” by Native American Indians due to their reliance on brush fires to keep their habitat open.

Sharp-tailed Grouse on the Grass
Sharp-tailed Grouse on the Grass

There are six subspecies:

The Greater Prairie-chicken, Lesser Prairie-chicken, and Sharp-tailed Grouse make up the genus Tympanuchus, a genus of grouse found only in North America. Six extant and one extinct subspecies of Sharp-tailed Grouse have been described:

  • T. p. phasianellus: The nominate race or Northern Sharp-tailed Grouse is found in Manitoba, northern Ontario, and central Quebec. It is partly migratory.
  • T. p. kennicotti: The Northwestern Sharp-tailed Grouse is resident from the Mackenzie River to the Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, Canada.
  • T. p. Taurus: The Alaska Sharp-tailed Grouse inhabits north-central Alaska eastwards to the southern Yukon, northern British Columbia, and northern Alberta.
  • T. p. columbianus: The Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse can be found in isolated pockets of native sagebrush and bunchgrass plains of Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and British Columbia.
  • T. p. campestris: the Prairie Sharp-tailed Grouses lives in southeastern Manitoba, southwestern Ontario, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. This subspecies coexists with the Plain’s race around the northern Red River valley and prefers low seral stages of recently converted forests to shrubland.
  • T. p. James: The Plains Sharp-tailed Grouses makes its home in the northern Great Plains in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, eastern Montana, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and northeastern Wyoming. This race lives in the mixed grass prairie preferring a mosaic of native grasslands, cropland, and brushy/woody riparian draws, creeks, and rivers for a winter food source above the snow cover as buds and berries.
  • T. p. Huey: The New Mexico Sharp-tailed Grouses is extinct.
Sharp-tailed Grouse on a Grass
Sharp-tailed Grouse on a Grass


Adults have a relatively short tail with the two central (deck) feathers being square-tipped and somewhat longer than their lighter, outer tail feathers giving the bird its distinctive name. The plumage is mottled dark and light browns against a white background, they are lighter on the underparts with a white belly uniformly covered in faint “V”-shaped markings.

Adult males have a yellow comb over their eyes and a violet display patch on their necks. The female is smaller than the male and can be distinguished by the regular horizontal markings across the deck feathers as opposed to the irregular markings on the male’s deck feathers which run parallel to the feather shaft.

Females also tend to have less obvious combs.

Males weigh an average of 33.5 oz. (951 g) and females average 29 oz. (815 g).


These birds forage on the ground in summer, and in trees in winter. They eat seeds, buds, berries, forbs, and leaves, as well as insects, especially grasshoppers, in summer.

Breeding / Mating:

These birds display in open areas known as leks with other males, anywhere from a single male to upwards of 20 will occupy one lek (averaging 8-12).

Males stamp their feet rapidly, about 20 times per second, and rattle their tail feathers while turning in circles or dancing forward.

Purple neck sacs are inflated and deflated during display. The females select the most dominant one or two males in the center of the lek, copulate, and then leave to nest and raise the young in solitary from the male.

Occasionally a low-rank male may disguise himself as a female and walk to where the dominant male is and fight him.

Status / Conservation:

These birds are declining in numbers and range due to habitat loss, but overall they are not considered a threatened species. The sharp-tailed grouse is the provincial bird of Saskatchewan.


Gordon Ramel

Gordon is an ecologist with two degrees from Exeter University. He's also a teacher, a poet and the owner of 1,152 books. Oh - and he wrote this website.

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