For the Birds Radio Program: Spruce Grouse
Birders seem to have a harder time finding Spruce Grouse than hunters do, but the searching is half the fun.
February is the month when birders flock to northeastern Minnesota in hopes of seeing northern specialities, especially owls, Boreal Chickadees, Gyrfalcons, and, if they’re really lucky, elusive Spruce Grouse. If you’re a birder, Spruce Grouse are simply hard to find. They live in the true boreal forest, and the easiest place to find them is on a roadside at first light. Dawn is way too late—by then, Spruce Grouse have long since retreated into the forest for the day. So birders cruise appropriate roads in the semi-darkness, searching their headlight beam for a big, chunky silhouette skulking in the road. Hunters stomping through the woods have an easier time finding them—they report bagging somewhere between ten and thirty thousand annually in the state.
If Spruce Grouse seem hard to find in 1995, they were apparently even rarer in 1936 when Thomas Sadler Roberts published the second edition of his massive work, The Birds of Minnesota. He wrote that “neither legislation nor any other means will save this bird, and it will inevitably disappear before many years have passed.” Fortunately, Roberts’s prediction hasn’t come to pass, and thanks to protection from hunters and regrowth of northern forests after the massive logging operations early in the century, their numbers are reasonably strong.
When someone actually manages to find a Spruce Grouse, it’s not hard to get close. This is one of the species common referred to as a “fool hen” for its fearlessness and even reckless tameness in the presence of humans. Roberts wrote:
The principal reason for its disappearance was undoubtedly the fact that it is naturally such a tame and indifferent bird in the face of danger that it was easily killed by whatever means happened to be at hand, even a club or stone serving in the absence of a gun. It is stated that it was easily caught by a running noose on the end of a stick and that teamsters amused themselves by snapping off its head with a blacksnake whip, as it usually stopped beside the trail to await the passing of the team or pedestrian.
Of course, the grouse that survived those days of early settlement produced offspring that were a bit more wary than the ones so easily killed, and today they’re not as fearless as wildlife photographers might wish. They’re pretty skittish on the ground, but once they’ve alighted on a tree branch, they sit tight even when approached rather closely.
Spruce Grouse have a bitter taste and a stronger odor than Ruffed Grouse, because they eat so many spruce needles. This diet also gives them characteristic green droppings, which can be easily identified in the snow, if you spend your winter days traipsing through the boreal forest looking for bird droppings.
If Spruce Grouse are hard to find, especially this winter, searching for them is still plenty of fun. A few weeks ago when I went a’grousing with my friend Karen, an enormous bull moose with magnificent antlers right next to the road was at least as exciting as a little old grouse would have been. Of course, a moose isn’t a bird, but then again, nobody’s perfect.