PLACES | 05.31.16

Wyoming’s Bird of Paradise

As if in defiance to the many threats they face, sage-grouse perform one the West's most impressive mating rituals.

Photograph by Gerrit Vyn

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America’s vast western sagebrush steppe is one of the country’s most romanticized and enduring landscapes. But like the seemingly endless Great Plains prairies before them, they are in danger of being degraded by human use—to a point where they can no longer sustain the unique organisms that have occupied them for hundreds of thousands of years. The declining numbers of the West’s two sage-grouse species warn of the failing health of the sagebrush ecosystem. Both the habitat and the birds that rely on it for survival face increasing threats from development, fossil fuel exploration, and the steady encroachment of juniper woodlands in response to fire suppression and climate change. Despite these pressures, each spring, males—like this greater sage-grouse (

Centrocercus urophasianus

)—gather en masse on traditional grounds called leks. Here they perform elaborate courtship displays—inflating bright yellow air sacs on their breasts, making explosive popping vocalizations, and fighting off rival males—all in an effort to attract potential mates. It remains one of North America’s great, if little-known, wildlife spectacles.

Sublette County, Wyoming

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ABOUT THE Photographer

Gerrit Vyn is a photographer, cinematographer, and producer for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and was the photographer for

The New York Times’s

Bestselling book, “The Living Bird.” Vyn’s photographs are frequently used by major conservation organizations and his work appears regularly in books and magazines, including

National Geographic, Audubon, BBC Wildlife, The New York Times,

and

National Wildlife.

He is a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers.

Gerrit Vyn

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