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Upland Game Identification

A Basic Guide for Aging and Sexing the Bird in Your Hand

Photo of Species

Sharp-tailed Grouse

On their dancing grounds in spring, it's pretty easy to tell the difference between male and female sharp-tailed grouse. The males are the ones doing the dance. The females are the ones watching.

In fall, telling male sharptails from females isn't quite as easy, but if you know what to look for, the differences become obvious.

Hunters are asked to pluck some feathers from the top of a sharptail's head to include in a wing envelope. There's a good reason for that. Photos below show the area of the sharptail head from which the feathers come, and also a comparison between head feathers from a male and female grouse.

Photo of a sharp-tail head
Feathers from the top of a sharptail's head hold a key to telling whether the bird is a male or female.

When you get a grouse in your hand, pull out a couple of feathers from the top of the head. You should be able to identify sex from those feathers. Male head feathers are black with a buff-colored or tan outside border. Female head feathers exhibit alternating buff and black stripes.

Photo of sharp-tail head feathers
These sharptail head feathers came from envelopes sent in by hunters. Female feathers (left) exhibit an alternating buff-black striping pattern. Feathers from a male (right) are all black with a buff-colored border.

If head feathers don't do it, look at the central tail feathers. The tips of these tail feathers look similar, so you need to pull them out, or pull back the feathers that cover much of the tail. The central tail feathers of a female sharptail carry buff-black markings similar to those of their head feathers. Male tail feathers have more white in them, and the striping or markings aren't as consistent. The photo below shows male and female sharp-tailed grouse central tail feathers. See if you can tell which is which.

Photo of central tail feathers of sharp-tailed grouse
Central tail feathers from male and female sharptails. The coloration of these feathers is an indicator of sex. The four feathers on the left came from females. Note the alternating buff-black horizontal striping.

The four male tail feathers on the right show more white, and the striping pattern is more vertical and not as consistent as on the female feathers.

When you examine an entire grouse tail, you can also judge the bird's sex. On a male, the feathers running either direction from the center are white and/or light gray. On a female, those same feathers are often mottled with buff/brown markings.

The photo below shows these characteristics. According to Kobriger, if you know what to look for, it is sometimes possible to judge the sex of a sharp-tail as it flushes, by whether the tail is brown or white.

Photo of a Sharp-tailed grouse's tail
Pulling away the feathers that cover a grouse's tail reveals another way to tell males from females. The feathers on either side of center on the female (left) are mottled. The same feathers on a male (right) are white on the ends and silvery-gray closer to the body.

Aging sharptails is similar to aging other grouse species. If the number nine and 10 primaries are still growing (look for the blueish quill - you're likely to see this early in the season) the bird is an adult. If primaries seven and/or eight are growing, the bird is likely a juvenile.

If the quill of all primaries are hard and white, that means they've stopped growing. If that's the case, the appearance of the outer two primaries reveals age. As with sage grouse, if those two feathers are pointed and frayed, the bird is a young-of-the-year. If those feathers are rounded and smooth, the bird is an adult.

Photo of sharp-tail wing feathers
These closeups of the outer primaries of two sharptails attest to the occasional difficulty of determining whether a bird is an adult or juvenile. The outer two primaries appear very similar. But look closely at the number nine (second from right) primary in both photos. The fraying on the end of the ninth primary in the in the photo at right indicates this wing came from a juvenile. Both outer primaries on the wing in the left-hand photo have smooth tips, indicating an adult bird.

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