Spruce Grouse: The gentle chicken of the forest

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Photo by DON BARTLING This female Spruce grouse feeds primarily on needles from spruce and pines, but when not eating needles they forage on the ground.

Last week I was on a photo trip journeying via country road 2509 to Spruce Lake when I came onto a fairly common site for late summer. It was a mother spruce grouse and three of her chicks who were almost fully grown.

I can well understand why the spruce grouse are also called “fool hens” because they just stayed in the road and let me watch them for a while, uninterrupted by my presence. I got out of my vehicle and quietly walked forward when one of the spruce grouse became uncomfortable and flew up into a tree. I curiously walked over within 15 feet of him sitting on a branch in a shaded area of the tree and took some more pictures. He eyed me suspiciously and then flew away and landed on the roof of my vehicle which amazed me. I thought silently, “I hope you are more cautious during the upcoming grouse season!”

The spruce grouse, Canada grouse, fool hen, Franklin’s grouse and spruce partridge are well known to North Idaho and Boundary County. Merriweather Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition described the spruce grouse as “gentle,” which is why it has often been referred to as the “fool hen” owing to its remote breeding range and inconspicuous behavior.

The spruce grouse is a dark, stocky bird of coniferous forests in the northern-western United States and Canada. The male spruce grouse is mainly dark gray above, with blackish barring, and black below, with white spots on the breast and belly. The tail is short and dark, sometimes with white spots or with a broad reddish-brown tip. There is a white border to the otherwise black throat, and white arcs beneath the eyes.

The female spruce grouse is paler than the male and is superbly camouflaged against the forest floor, being largely brownish to gray with extensive brown and white barring. Immature birds resemble the adult female, but may have white or buffy tips to some of the feathers, giving a paler appearance. Both the adult male and female grouse have a blackish or reddish-brown beak and a scarlet area above the eye, known as the “superciliary comb,” which becomes a conspicuous bright red in the male during courtship.

Although reported to be among the most silent of the grouse species, the spruce grouse produces a variety of calls, including hisses, purrs and hums. The female also produces a territorial “song” consisting of a long series of complex notes. In addition, the male spruce grouse uses a range of non-vocal sounds, including a soft “drumming” and a loud wing-clap.

Spruce grouse are always associated with conifer-dominated forests, be they pine, spruce, or fir. They seem to prefer young stands. In summer they can be found near a rich understory of blueberries and other shrub, and in winter they prefer denser stands.

Males advertise a territory that is visited by females for mating. Females are solely responsible for the rest of the reproductive effort though males have been known to stay with young chicks and seem to aid in keeping the brood together. For a nest, they scratch a depression in the ground in a bush or under a low-lying coniferous branch or fallen tree, away from other females and from the males’ territories. The nest is lined with grasses, leaves, and a few feathers.

Nesting season is from early May to early July. Up to 10 eggs may be laid, the usual number being four to seven. Laying rate is one egg every 1.4 days. Eggs are about 40 mm in length (1.5 inches) and are tawny olive or buff, marked with blotches of brown. Incubation begins with the last egg laid and lasts about 24 days. At 70-100 days of age, chicks tend to leave the group and become independent. Most females first breed at one year of age, but about half the males delay establishing a territory until two years. Their general lifespan is about five to six years in the wild.

Spruce grouse eggs sometimes are taken by red squirrels, foxes and weasels. Adults can fall prey to various hawks and owls, foxes, pine martins and coyotes. The spruce grouse is essentially a permanent resident to the geographical area in which he was born.

Enjoy Boundary County and its wildlife!

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