Robotic Sage Grouse Help Researchers Understand Complicated Mating

Jul 8, 2019

  

For Gail Patricelli, when a female sage-grouse dies, it’s arts and crafts time. She collects the corpses and taxidermies them to the top of a robotic tank kit. She then drives the sage grouse around the breeding grounds - known as leks - to try and understand the threatened birds. 

Patricelli is an ecologist at the University of California-Davis, not just a macabre bird enthusiast. She said the robotic birds have opened a lot of opportunities in the study of the greater sage grouse, and her art skills don’t have to be perfect.

“Females are extremely picky about which male they choose to mate with, but in this species the males are not pick," Patricelli said. "When there is no real females around, we have seen them attempt to mate with dry cow pies, they don’t try and even court the cow pies, so it just has to look more realistic than a cow pie, but the bar is fairly low.”

Male sage grouse have a complicated dance to entice breeding females, including jumping, inflating their chest sacs and displaying their statue of liberty-like tail feathers. Patricelli said her work allows them to get closer, inspire interactions and gather data that would otherwise have to be collected through binoculars. 

Patricelli said unlike birds like peacocks, sage grouse care more about behavior than they do beauty. 

“So we have been interested in how social skills and social intelligence also play into this and that is a much harder trait to measure," she said. "When you are looking at natural courtship behaviors it is hard to know who is reacting to who. What the robot allows us to do is hold one side of the conversation constant and control that, and measure how males respond.”

The sage grouse robot army has so far only been deployed in a few leks in Wyoming, but Patricelli said she is shopping around for other possible research spots, including leks in Utah.