Allison Cook

Greater and Gunnison sage grouse are closely related species. Males both exhibit white breasts and beautifully fanned tail feathers. People flock to see both species on their respective lekking grounds perform mating rituals. And both Gunnison and Greater sage grouse are trending towards extinction.

But what is the difference between these two sage grouses? Read on for five key differences between Greater and Gunnison sage grouse.

A male Greater sage-grouse in Montana
Larry Temple
A male Greater sage-grouse in Montana.

1. Size

Greater sage grouse are, well greater in size than Gunnison sage grouse. Male Greater sage grouse can reach 30 inches long and 2 feet tall. They can weigh up to 7 pounds too. Females are smaller, averaging less than 23 inches long and weigh up to 4 pounds.

Both male and female Gunnison sage grouse grow to be about the same size. They are roughly two-thirds the size of male Greater sage-grouse or 18 to 22 inches long and 2 to 5.5 pounds.

Gunnison Sage-grouse
Larry Lamsa (CC BY 2.0)
A male Gunnison sage-grouse in Colorado.

2. Feather Patterns

 Male Gunnison sage-grouse’s tail feathers have more distinct bands than their Greater sage-grouse counterparts. Gunnison sage-grouse also have longer plumes – or filoplumes – that extend from the back of their head down their neck.  

3. Vocalizations

To attract a receptive female, both species’ males perform a fascinating mating ritual. A male will fan his tail feathers and swell his white-feathered breasts to reveal yellow air sacs. The wing movements, and inflating and deflating air sacs make a unique "swish-swish-coo-oopoink” sound.  

The exact pitches vary between the Greater and Gunnison sage-grouses. Male Gunnison will also deflate their air sac more times, averaging about nine times, during each display.  

A male greater sage-grouse performing his mating ritual.

4. “Dance Steps” During Mating Display

At the end of each mating display, a Gunnison male will shake his tail feathers. These males will also throw their filoplumes around as if to show them off.

5. Location

If you’re lucky enough to spot a sage grouse in the wild, but can’t quite see the physical or behavioral differences, note where you are. Both Greater and Gunnison sage grouse rely on large expanses of healthy sagebrush grasslands, often referred to as the Sagebrush Sea. But their ranges do not overlap.

Greater sage-grouse are more wide-ranging. They are found across much of the northern interior West, from Southeast Oregon through Montana and down to Northeast California to Northwestern Colorado. Gunnison sage-grouse, however, is only found in less than 10% of their historic range. They are found in Western Colorado and Southeastern Utah.

A Gunnison sage-grouse in Colorado.
Larry Lamsa/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
A Gunnison sage-grouse in Colorado.

Bonus: Endangerment Status

While both species are trending toward extinction, only the Gunnison sage-grouse currently has imperiled status. The Endangered Species Act lists them as threatened and the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists them as endangered. Despite their non-listing in the ESA and near threatened status in the IUCN, Greater sage-grouse have declined 80% throughout their range since 1965 and nearly 40% since 2002.

The decline of both species will continue if something is not done to better protect their habitats. Over one million acres, on average, of sage-grouse habitat each year is lost to a combination of fires, invasive species, drought, energy development, mining and roads.  

There is hope – if we can secure stronger conservation strategies. Join Defenders in watching out for the Bureau of Land Management’s Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Strategy and telling the agency you support the strongest protections possible. 


A Cook Headshot

Allison Cook

Content Writer

Areas of Expertise: Communications, writing for the blog and website

Allison joined Defenders of Wildlife in 2023 after working for Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation


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