by Ellen Horowitz
Spruce Grouse are known by many names: Franklin’s grouse, Canada grouse, wood grouse, spruce partridge and black partridge. But the name most people think of when they see this forest dweller is “fool hen” due to its unwary nature and reluctance to fly away from humans. However, the bird’s laid-back behavior is what makes Spruce Grouse so enjoyable and easy to watch in the wild – once you locate this camouflage artist.
Spruce Grouse inhabit the northern coniferous forests of North America. In the western quarter of Montana (including the eastern slope of the Continental Divide), they’re generally associated with spruce-fir forests. They also inhabit mixed forests of lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, western larch and ponderosa pine.
One of the places I regularly encounter them is in the woods along the south side of Swiftcurrent and Josephine lakes in Glacier. A Spruce Grouse walking along the trail is easy to spot, but more often it’s the soft chicken-like talk of a hen conversing with her chicks that catches my attention. Sometimes, the movement of brush alerts me to the scurrying of young birds along the forest floor. On days when I don’t see any, I can’t help but wonder if I walked past the cryptically colored bird holding a motionless pose against a backdrop of similarly colored tree trunks and branches. The bird’s ability to blend in with the surroundings protects it from an array of predators that include weasels, coyotes, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Northern Goshawks and Barred Owls.
Montana is home to four species of grouse. The dusky, ruffed and spruce are woodland species and the White-tailed Ptarmigan is their alpine cousin. Two things that set the Spruce Grouse apart from the dusky and ruffed are its close associations with coniferous forests on a year-round basis, and its small size.
A male Spruce Grouse can be recognized by its black throat and breast feathers and bright red eye combs. The overall mottling on the male’s back and wing feathers are dark. When fanning his black tail, a row of white spots becomes visible. In contrast, female Spruce Grouse wear earthy grayish-brown colors and barred patterns. At a quick glance, the female might be mistaken for a Ruffed Grouse, but her smaller size and short tail aid in identification.
Spruce Grouse feed upon the needles of larch, pine, firs, junipers and spruce as well as leafy plants. The fruits of huckleberry and snowberry shrubs and some insects add variety to their diet. Their winter menu consists almost exclusively of conifer needles.
As springtime approaches, the male Spruce Grouse defends his territory by strutting and posturing with fanned tail and by performing an unusual leap and wing-clap display. The sound, a loud CRACK-CRACK, carries for more than 100 yards. (Check out the YouTube video on spruce grouse courtship by FAS member John Ashley.)
The female takes full responsibility for the nest and incubation. The typical nest amounts to a natural depression or shallow scrape on the forest floor located beneath overhanging branches or brush. The female lays four to nine tawny-olive colored eggs covered with brown spots and splotches. After about 21 days, the eggs hatch, and the precocial young are open-eyed and ready to go.
My favorite encounter with Spruce Grouse occurred years ago. As my husband lead our pack string of mules down the trail, he inadvertently spooked a group of very young grouse chicks which flutter-ran to the base of a tree. About 10 to 15 seconds later a small, plump, stubby-winged creature flew toward me from the opposite side of the trail at an altitude of about four feet above the ground. An exhausted baby spruce grouse landed in my hand and rode on my lap a few strides down the trail before flying back to reunite with its family.
Call them fool hens if you wish. For me, Spruce Grouse are the ultimate in up close and personal bird watching.