By Kathy Ross
Imagine the shock of hearing an engine start up in the middle of a beautiful forest a long distance from road or apparent civilization. I know I was truly puzzled and a little disconcerted by this mechanical sound in the quiet of a peaceful woodland setting, only to discover it was an important aspect of the forest ecosystem. The “drumming”, as it is referred to, of grouse in our mountain forests is actually the rapid wing beats of male grouse letting the ladies know he is available for the spring mating season. Although this “drumming” may be more associated with Rough Grouse populations, its cousin the Spruce Grouse also uses the wing beating to attract the females and adds an extra clapping of his wings above his back when displaying. This wing clapping has been described as sounding like a gunshot.
The Spruce Grouse is a medium size, dark, chicken-like bird found in coniferous forests of the northern U.S. and Canada. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the male as “slate-gray overall with bold white spots on lower breast and belly and broken white line outlining a black throat.” The back feathers are dark gray with blackish bars. A red comb above each eye is a distinctive identifying feature. The female of the species has strong barring, especially on the underside. The barring is set against an overall coloration of rufous to dark gray.
Of the two distinct subspecies of Spruce Grouse, the “Franklin’s Grouse,” D.c. franklinii, is most common in our area. It is distinguished by “an all black tail with small white spots on the feathers overlying it.” Typically found in the northern part of Spruce Grouse range, the Taiga species, D.c. canadensis, is distinguished by rufous tips to the tail and no spots.
Unlike grassland species of grouse which during the mating season form leks of males in wild dance-like displays to attract females, Spruce Grouse males display singularly in their forested habitat. As in most Grouse species, the female may mate with more than one male and she then leaves the male display area for her protected ground nest, usually near the base of a tree, of needles, grass, and feathers. She will lay 4 to 7 eggs and raise her young alone. The downy-feathered young look much like their mother, blending unassumingly into the forest landscape.
Also unlike the grassland species, many of which are very much on the decline because of habitat loss, the Franklin’s Grouse populations have a conservation status of “least concern.” However their populations sometimes change cyclically and fluctuate dramatically with disturbances in their forest habitat.
To feed, Spruce Grouse will forage in trees or on the ground for needles and buds of conifers and may even dine on berries, seeds or insects in the warmer summer season. An interesting fact about Spruce Grouse is that their digestive organs change with seasonal shifts in diet. Needing more food in the winter to maintain energy and mass, their gizzard grows by approximately 75% and other parts of the digestive tract might grow in length by 40%. Also they have a crop that “can store up to ten percent of the bird’s weight in food, to be digested at night.”
The Spruce Grouse is usually a quiet and well camouflaged little forest character. Because of its rather tame behavior around humans, it has been labeled “Fool’s Hen.” During hunting season its casual trail wanderings in the presence of humans become dangerous behavior. But when it flies, this usually quiet and inconspicuous bird can cause quite a commotion with its short powerful wings built for bursts of speed in the forest. Its sudden and unseen thrashing and flight when startled has left more than one hiker briefly responding — Bear!, until a glimpse of wing reveals the real source of the disturbance.
I count myself fortunate when I encounter this beautiful bird on my forest wanderings and I am reminded of the respect shown grouse in Native American symbolism. For many tribes, experiencing the spiraling mating dance displays and “drumming” of grouse represents opening one’s energy to the rhythms of life and cycles of nature, time, and self. “All human activity is a kind of dance and ritual.”* And for native cultures, the drumming wing beats of grouse are symbolic of setting ones individual power loose on the wind, to become one with all of nature.
So when you have the privilege of the beautiful little Spruce Grouse leading you down a mountain path, consider it as the native people might have, not fool at all but your guide through its forest world.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds Website
*ANIMAL SPEAKS by Ted Andrews
FIELD GUIDE TO BIRDS, by Don and Lillian Stokes
SIBLEY GUIDE TO BIRD LIFE AND BEHAVIOR
SIBLEY FIELD GUIDE TO BIRDS OF WESTERN NORTH AMERICA, by David Allen Sibley
BIRD TRACKS AND SIGNS by Mark Elbroch with Eleanor Marks