Sophie, Emma, and Sophie’s tour group headed generally southwest out of Medicine Hat in the direction of Milk River. The Milk River basin of Southern Alberta is one of the traditional breeding grounds for sage grouse, though their population there is in decline because of loss of habitat. As the group watched the birds in full courtship display, Sophie began her spiel. In the spring, the males gather in an open area called a lek and do a dance to impress the females and become one of the few males allowed to mate that season. As they dance, they spread their spiked tail feathers and puff out the yellow-brown air sacks on their chests. White feathers on their necks resemble the ermine stoles European royalty used to wear. The inflated air sacks make popping sounds that attract the females.
While many in the group were viewing the courtship from an interest in science or bird watching, several women were discussing whether the sage grouse hens really found those strutting pompous males sexually attractive. One thought the hens found the whole affair tiresome but necessary to conform to sage grouse social mores that required their belonging to some male’s harem. Another made reference to teenage girls who neck passionately to just short of the point of no return in the hope of enticing clueless males with supercharged libidos into marriage. “One must distinguish between “hunt ‘n’ peckers and huntin’ peckers” said a retired English teacher, steeped in the lore of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the popular book by Lynne Truss on the importance of correct punctuation. The discussion ended when an irked birder castigated them for ascribing human behavior to birds.
Some parents worry about having their children exposed to conversations on adult subjects. Sophie was not one of those, but if she were, she needn’t have been concerned. Emma loved watching the birds, had her own ideas of what was going on, and, like most children, found the adult conversations too boring to listen to.
Sophie took her group to Milk River for the evening. While her they were relaxing in their hotel before dinner, she took Emma to a playground. She didn’t need to follow Laetitia’s example and go to a bar. She already had a limerick.
The Sage Grouse don’t just hunt and peck
They do a wild dance in a lek
In order to date
And ultimately mate
Some hens who might just want to neck.