Unlike the three species of American Prairie Chickens,and two species of Sage Grouse,the Sharp-tailed Grouse has managed to survive mankind's depredations in good numbers. If you are looking for grouse displaying on a displaying ground, or "lek", this is the easiest species to search out. It can be found in the upper Midwest of the United States, into the Rocky Mountains, across large areas of Canada and even in Alaska. Leks are special places that the birds prefer, for their own reasons. They use the same ones year after year as males dance and try to impress females into mating with them. The season is from March, when it's cold, through May, when it's not so cold, but the grass has grown to hide some of the grouse's footwork. Leks are often on private property, and may take local help to get to.
The lek in this video was not private, and the birds allowed our pickup to approach within a few meters, because we got there well before dawn with no headlights. You can't leave the vehicle, or they will flush. Native Americans have watched this performance for thousands of years and have adapted it to their own dancing.
Most people believe that it is stomping feet of the grouse that cause the drumming sound. However, close observers have implicated the tail feathers. The feet stomp and the feathers wave back and forth, all at about 20 times per second, so you can't tell the difference by just timing them. I had hoped to be able to see where the sound originated in this video. It really does seem to be the tail, and not only because when the tail stops, the sound stops. By slowing down the video/audio, you hear the character of the sound itself. Each beat (not the drumming, but each individual drumbeat) is itself a rattle, like flipping a deck of cards, running a stick over a corrugated surface, or sawing. You could expect such a sound from the shafts of stiff feathers rubbing each other, but not from foot stomping. Look and listen at 2 minutes, 34 seconds into the video. If you have the ability to slow down audio files, you can hear this effect much better in the excellent sound recordings of Andrew Spencer and others at Xeno-canto.
How does this sound carry as far as it does? Other grouse species use air filled sacs as resonators to enhance their sounds. Could the Sharp-tails have one hidden away somewhere in the posterior anatomy? Looks like a good reason to go out and film some more!