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Dusky Grouse

By Ben Long

The official name of Montana’s “Blue Grouse” is now the “Dusky Grouse.” But I always think of them as Kamikaze Grouse. Here’s why.

My family was driving a mountain road one May when we spied a male Dusky Grouse doing its spring mating dance along the barrow pit. The handsome fellow’s tail was fanned and a red, white-rimmed spot throbbed on its neck and eyebrow. Karen stepped out of the passenger side with telephoto lens, intending to photograph the bird from a respectful distance.

Turns out it wasn’t respectful enough. The bird puffed up its feathers, fanned out its wings, and charged like an angry wind-up toy. Karen switched to a wide angle, and took some point-blank portraits of the bird as it pecked at its reflection in the lens.

When she lifted the camera, the bird went for her ankles, pecking furiously as if wishing to unravel her socks. Karen hopped and danced around the car. Aidan, about 3 at the time, laughed hysterically at Mom’s “chicken dance.” I tried to maintain a face of polite concern, but it was not easy. Karen jumped back in the car, nearly beheading the bird with the slam of the door as it tried to follow her inside. The grouse chased the car on the wing as I stomped the gas and fled.

That’s the Dusky Grouse — handsome, big and a bit dim.

The Dusky Grouse are kin to the chicken, pheasant and partridge. (Though to my tastes, the grouse tastes better than any of the three.)

It is the largest of Montana’s forest grouse, weighing about two pounds. That’s 25-50 percent larger than the Ruffed and Spruce grouse, although not quite as big as the Sage Grouse of the high desert.

The Dusky Grouse is frequently found at high altitudes. In Northwestern Montana it seems particularly fond of high ridges with big, open Douglas fir. I’ve seen many above timberline amid subalpine fir, but also amid lodgepole pine up the valley floor of the North Fork.

It is a hardy breed. Many times I have been forced off autumn ridges by early blizzards, only to see Dusky Grouse out and about, as if oblivious to the foul weather. They are marvelously adapted for mountain storms, with their downy breasts, feathered legs and feather-covered nostrils.

Dusky grouse are a popular game bird for human hunters. Wild predators of adult and fledgling birds include goshawks and foxes. Dusky Grouse nest on the ground and are vulnerable to nest-raiders such as members of the weasel family.

When Dusky Grouse do flush, they are powerful fliers, but generally jump into a high bough of a fir tree and eyeball their pursuer. If they decide to flee, they lock their wings and soar downhill, sometimes dropping several hundred vertical feet.

Dusky Grouse peck and scratch for beetles, ants, and grasshoppers, also eating buds, young forbs and berries in season. In winter they eat evergreen needles, twigs and small cones.

You don’t see Dusky Grouse every day because they tend to live in remote terrain. One reliable place to see one is the top of the high knob above Herron Park on the Foys To Blacktail Trail.

When I grew up, we called Dusky Grouse “Blue Grouse.” In 2006, the American Ornithological Society split the “Blue” into two distinct species “Dusky” and “Sooty.” Dusky Grouse range the Rocky Mountains from the Yukon to New Mexico, including western Montana. The Sooty Grouse inhabits the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges.

No matter what you call them, Dusky Grouse are good to have around.

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