Sage Grouse Chicks – How & Why of Tagging (Part 3 of 3)

Each chick’s radio tag is smaller than a pinky nail, and secured quickly with two sutures. Photo by Kenton Rowe.

  • Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) Program 
  • 50-80 Chicks Tagged Each Year
  • Chicks and Mother Hen Monitored for Health
  • 1,450 Ranches Enrolled, Conserved 5.5 million Acres

 

Each chick’s radio tag is smaller than a pinky nail, and secured quickly with two sutures. Photo by Kenton Rowe.
Each chick’s radio tag is smaller than a pinky nail, and secured quickly with two sutures. Photo by Kenton Rowe.

By Brianna Randall, Sage Grouse Initiative

Saving sage grouse saves more than 350 other species, including plants, insects and a host of wildlife.  The Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) is a partnership of ranchers, agencies, universities, non-profit groups, and businesses that embrace a common vision: wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching.  One key in the success of the program starts with successful chicks and understanding where they are and how they are doing.

Tell us how a typical chick-tagging might go.

We usually have three people in a team. Because the hen does not want to leave her brood (which is roosting underneath her), we are usually able to get close enough to the hen to touch her. After using telemetry to find the hen, we surround her and gently flush her off the chicks. Then we immediately scoop up all of the chicks and put them in an insulated cooler with a hot water bladder in the bottom, creating a warm environment. Most first nest attempts average 8-10 chicks, and second nest attempts usually yield about 6. From there, we pick two chicks randomly and weigh them. Each of these chicks then gets a tiny transmitter attached with two quick sutures.

When we’re done, we set all of the chicks back onto the ground as close to the capture area as we can. Once we leave, the mom comes back and gathers the brood under her. We always check on the hen and chicks the following day to make sure all of the chicks are okay. In total, we usually tag between 50-80 chicks each year from about 25-40 nests.

A hen covers her brood of older chicks. Sage grouse nests are typically a simple, shallow depression near sagebrush shrubs. Photo by Mark Szczypinski.
A hen covers her brood of older chicks. Sage grouse nests are typically a simple, shallow depression near sagebrush shrubs. Photo by Mark Szczypinski.

How do you check on the chicks once they’re tagged?

After tagging, we spend the rest of the summer monitoring and tracking the brood. Basically, if all three transmitters are heard in the same area and on a similar compass bearing and the signal strength seems the same, we assume the two chicks and the hen are all okay. If one signal is weaker or not in the same area as the other two signals, we go check on the bird. Otherwise, we stay about 30m away from the broods.

We monitor broods every other day for the first 14 days — since this is the time of highest mortality — then twice per week thereafter until the chicks reach 75 days of age, which is just before the batteries start to die on the chick transmitters. By mid-August and into September, we start recapturing the surviving chicks to fit them with an adult necklace transmitter since they’re big enough to carry it by then. We only tag the hens, and they’re old enough by then for us to identify the sex.

How do you know if a chick or hen is dead?

If a hen is motionless for more than 4 hours, the transmitter’s pulse doubles to indicate potential mortality. We do monthly survival checks from October through March by jumping in a small airplane to get locations on all of our tagged birds. After any mortalities during the spring and summer, we’re typically left with 75-90 hens to locate on each of these flights.

If any are dead, I go find the transmitter to recover it, and see if I can figure out what happened to the bird. Some years for whatever reason, we’ve had four mortalities per month during the fall and winter survival checks, but other years it’s only about one mortality per month.

During the first half of the study, the annual apparent survival estimates for sage grouse hens ranged from 57-82% from 2011 through 2015. For chicks, the survival estimates range from 12-22%. We look forward to continuing the tagging effort to have more data in the coming years.

 Meet the Expert

Mark Szczypinski holds a kangaroo rat, another critter that depends on healthy sagebrush habitat.
Mark Szczypinski holds a kangaroo rat, another critter that depends on healthy sagebrush habitat.

What’s the best part of your job?

I love the diversity of the things that I do, from hiring and training technicians to repairing field gear to tagging birds and interacting with all of the landowners in the area. My job changes with the seasons, which means I never get bored!

What are your favorite off-the-clock activities?

All things outdoors are right up my alley. Hunting, fishing, backpacking — you name it. I’ve lived in the Intermountain West for quite a while and appreciate this landscape immensely.

Mark Szczypinski’s sage grouse tagging crew for the 2016 field season.
Mark Szczypinski’s sage grouse tagging crew for the 2016 field season.

The Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) is a partnership of ranchers, agencies, universities, non-profit groups, and businesses that embrace a common vision: wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching.

Launched by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 2010, SGI applies the power of the Farm Bill to fund and certify voluntary conservation projects in sage grouse strongholds across 11 western states.  To date, the 1,450 ranches enrolled have conserved 5.5 million acres.

For more information on the Sage Grouse Initiative program or to become involved directly with the SGI program, visit: http://www.sagegrouseinitiative.com.