The spruce grouse, sometimes referred to as the Canadian grouse, is a moderately sized variety that can often be found in the coniferous forests of Ontario, Canada and northern parts of the USA. This variety is much more likely to be found perched on tree branches and moving from tree to tree. It often goes by the nickname, ‘fool hen,’ due to its use of immobility and camouflage to deter potential predators.
The spruce grouse is typically around seventeen inches long and can weigh up to twenty three ounces. There can be subtle differences between species, but generally speaking males can be identified by black colours below and grey colours above. Plumage can differ however, particularly in the pattern of the tail and the white areas on the undercarriage. Males usually also have a red patch of skin over an eye. Females can be identified by their red or grey mottled feathers and the white bars on their undercarriages. Many people often confuse a female spruce with a ruffed grouse. However, a spruce has a dark tail and a pale band while the complete opposite is true with the ruffed species. Spruce grouse also never raise their crown feathers after being disturbed, as ruffed grouse do.
Spruce grouse were originally separated into two individual species within the genus of Canachites. Franklin’s grouse and spruce grouse were considered separate species. However, these have now been merged into the genus of Dendragapus
Distribution and Habitat
The spruce grouse is native to the Taiga and is therefore found in many areas of Canada. This particular species of grouse is also found in several U.S. states including Washington, Idaho, Montana, Maine, Michigan and Washington. The preferred habitat of the spruce grouse is dense coniferous forests. During the summer months, the bird can be found near shrubs and in winter, near more dense stands.
During the harsh winter months, the spruce grouse will survive mainly on conifer needles, usually the mid crown of pines, although other conifers are sometimes consumed as well. The summer months provide an abundance of insects, fungi, green plants and berries, foraged directly from the ground. The drastic change of diet in the winter is supported by annual changes to the size of the grouse’s intestine. In order to aid the breaking down of food, the grouse consumes large amounts of grit and stone. Chicks will feed on insects and arthropods before changing to fungi and berries until the autumn. The winter is spent consuming pine needles.
Male grouse mark territories as their own and advertise them to females for mating. A male can mate with several females during a season. However, this is where involvement of the male ends in rearing young. Females scratch a hollow into the earth in or around bushes, low lying coniferous branches or by fallen trees to create their nests. They then line them with feathers, grass and leaves. The nesting season takes place between May and July when the female can lay up to ten eggs. One egg of around 40mm in length is laid around every one and a half days. Grouse eggs are a tawny olive colour and have random brown blotches. Incubation of the eggs normally commences when the final egg is laid and generally lasts for 24 days. Only eight hours after hatching, chicks will walk from the nest once dry. After only a week the spruce grouse is usually able to flutter its developing wings. The hen looks after the brood for around three to five weeks. This behaviour is demonstrated by the hen’s reaction when the chicks call out, seemingly through feeling cold. Chicks will often leave the group as early as seventy days after birth; however, in some cases they can stay with their mother for up to one hundred days. Females will only raise one brood per year, with their first mating season beginning at one year of age. Males will usually start to establish territories at two years of age. The average lifespan of a spruce grouse is widely believed to be around six years, however it has been known for them to survive for thirteen years.
Spruce grouse use a series of calls in order to facilitate brooding, repel intruders, scare off predators and maintain care of the young. The franklinii subspecies the performance of a wing clap display is thought to be a display of territoriality. Following a shirt flight through the forest, the bird brings its wings together to produce two very quick claps. It is possible for a human to hear such sounds one hundred and fifty metres away. In order to elicit these displays of territoriality, the clapping of hands can sometimes be used. This allows people to study male territories in some detail. Other displays of territory management include the sound of tail feathers whooshing through the air and a soft drumming sound created by the beating of wings in flight.
Unlike most bird species, the spruce grouse prefers life on the ground. They also spend a lot of time walking along branches of trees. As with other species of grouse, the spruce develops natural ‘snowshoes’ in the autumn, ready for the winter snowfall. These are short extensions of the toes. This increases the surface area of the feet and aids walking in the snow and gripping tree branches. These toe extensions are shed when the warmer months arrive. The flights of the grouse tend to be relatively short and usually restricted to quick hops from tree to tree.
The spruce grouse does not migrate and remains within a radius of up to eleven miles for the duration of its life. The eggs of the grouse are particularly susceptible to theft by foxes and weasels. Fully grown grouse live in danger of falling prey to coyotes, owls and coyotes. However, it can be argued that the grouse’s biggest predator is man. Well over 350,000 were caught annually in the seventies. The bird has protected status in many states in the USA but is not regarded as endangered by the IUCN.