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The Spruce Grouse

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Living Life with Altitude - A Bird in Hand

The Spruce Grouse is a bird that many birders will never be able to add to their life list, even though it is a very common species. Why? Because it is not exactly the most accessible bird to find. Sort of like the Clark’s Nutcracker or the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, the avid birder will have to work to earn this one—though that might only amount to a Jeep ride far up a Forest Service road and a bit of tramping on a hiking trail. 

Of the three common species of forest grouses in our area—the Ruffed Grouse, the Dusky Grouse, and the Spruce Grouse—the Spruce lives at the highest altitudes. Yes, I know, the White-tailed Ptarmigan likes to hang out at and above the tree line—even further up than the Spruce Grouse—but modern population records of these birds for our area are pretty sparse. So humor me….

The Spruce Grouse ranges across the most northerly latitudes of North America, just barely dipping down into a half-dozen northern states. There are two subspecies, the one in our region being the more handsome of the two: the Franklin Grouse. In the not too distant past the Franklin Grouse was considered its own species and when one considers the differences between the two subspecies in breeding habits, coloration, and a few other points, one wonders why the powers-that-be didn’t leave well enough alone. I wouldn’t be surprised if the two subspecies are again separated. But the two subspecies do tend to interbreed where their populations overlap. 

 The chicken-sized Franklin Grouse, “our” Spruce Grouse, is a handsome bird. The female actually might be confused with the Ruffed Grouse, minus the ruff. She is mostly covert grays or rusty earth tones. But the male is another story altogether; he is a dandy. Overall he appears to be slate-gray or dark brown, with a broad patch of black from his chin down to his lower chest. The breast flanks and belly are covered with a bright-white checkered pattern. The back of the bird might also have some checkering, though it is much finer in appearance. The tail is black and when he fans it (which I have been lucky to witness) there is a ring of distinctive white spots. Above each eye is a bright red comb, thought this might look more like eyeliner. But, hey, whatever it takes to catch the fancy of the ladies. 

Like deer, the Spruce Grouse will freeze in place when approached by predators. This might work fine against bobcats, foxes, and most of the other predators the Spruce Grouse encounters, as these animals lack the pattern recognition of humans. But this behavior has earned the bird the moniker of “fool hen,” as early settlers and Native Americans were often able to dispatch the birds with a whack of a stick. Personally, I’ve been able to approach a Franklin Grouse to within six feet before it slowly and hesitantly walked off. Very tame birds. 

Spruce Grouse spend their summers on the ground eating berries, insects, grass seeds, and fresh green sprouts. The little ones eat almost exclusively insects, evidently needing the protein for their growing bodies. Come winter the birds will live in the trees, consuming spruce and other conifer needles. As this is not a particularly nutritious food source—quantity is needed to compensate for the lack of quality—the bird’s gizzard will more than double in size. The Spruce Grouse’s crop can store the equivalent of 10 percent of the bird’s body weight, which is then digested over the course of the night. Sweet dreams.

These birds also grow little fleshy “hairs” on their toes for the winter called pectinations that give the birds a larger footprint, serving as sort of snowshoes. These little hairs then fall off for the summer. This is similar to other grouse. The birds might also migrate in elevation, descending to a wintering ground and ascending to their summer ground. Otherwise they are year-round residents. 

The birds are not very vocal, though there will be some hooting during breeding season. The male also stakes out a breeding territory and any females wandering into his territory are liable to be the objects of his intense interest. He will attempt to beguile her with breathtaking swoops from the treetops, distinctive wing snaps that can be quite loud, and generalized strutting. If she succumbs to his amorous ambitions, she’ll soon be digging a shallow nest in the leaf litter at the foot of a dense shrub, its overhanging boughs offering protection from both the weather and predators. And she’ll be a single mother, as father will be busy trying to seduce every other hen passing his way. But the babies (typically seven) will be born precocious (meaning they’re born running) and will spend the summer growing up as quickly as possible and getting ready for the upcoming winter. And the cycle continues.

I like Spruce Grouse, typically roasted. And they’re pretty to look at, too. Thus they can be enjoyed twice, once with the binoculars and once with the shotgun. Have you marked the Spruce Grouse off of your life list yet? No? Better find someone with a Jeep, a willingness to drive high into the mountains, tramp a few hiking paths and, since you’ve gone that far and are probably in the right place, help with picking some huckleberries. I’m sure there is a recipe out there that can combine the berries with the birds. Happy birding! 

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

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birding, A Bird in Hand, spruce grouse

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