For as long as anyone can remember, field trialers have referred to both Prairie Chickens and their cousins, Sharp-tailed Grouse, (both in the subfamily of Grouse known as Tetraoninae) “Chickens!” The range of the Greater Prairie Chicken has declined over the years so birds pointed in the National Amateur Chicken Championship today are primarily Sharp-tailed grouse. Only the National Amateur Prairie Chicken Shooting Dog Championship is run exclusively on Greater Prairie Chickens.
Native to North America, the Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) is a medium sized grouse with a round body, short legs and elongated central tail feathers that create a sharp point. The bird’s upperparts are barred with dark brown, black and buff coloring. Both the male and female sharp-tailed grouse have a crescent-shaped, light orange comb over each eye. Although similar in appearance to the Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido), the Sharp-tailed Grouse can be distinguished by the dark V-shaped marks on the underparts, the elongated central tail feathers, and the color of the air sacs in the male.
Primarily a ground forager, Sharp-tailed Grouse feed on a range of foods, with their diet varying depending on location and season. In spring and summer, it consists mainly of grasses, fruits, flowers and insects. Buds, seeds, plant matter and fruit are eaten during the winter months.
The male Sharp-tailed Grouse gather at lek sites in spring to perform spectacular courtship dances to attract females, and in autumn to re-establish their territories and dominance hierarchies. After mating, the female constructs a nest made of plant material and breast feathers often under small shrubs or trees. The male does not take part in nest building or raising the young. The female usually lays up to 12 eggs that are incubated for 21 to 23 days. The well developed chicks leave the nest a short time after hatching to forage with their mother. She usually raises only one brood per year but a second breeding sometimes takes place if the first brood of chicks is lost. The birds roost on the ground or in trees and may burrow beneath the snow in winter. A non-migratory bird, the Sharp-tailed Grouse’s flights are generally less than a 100 yards.
“Chickens” are highly social and form flocks of up to 30 individuals. In late summer months they are perfect for training young bird dogs as the birds rarily flush all at one time, allowing for the dogs to make errors, be corrected and then immediately be praised for remaining steady on the rest of the birds as they flush. As the season progresses and colder temperatures arrive on the prairie, the birds become more flightly and difficult to get pointed.