Dusky Grouse are so interesting and this year I had an up-close and personal encounter. These birds, about the size of a chicken and weighing up to three pounds, would rather walk than fly. Best known by locals for scaring the daylights out of you since they wait until you are about two feet away then fly up in a rapid, flurried take off. Yikes, my heart! Here we have a male in full mating display last June, too busy courting to bother with us. He struts and hops with tail raised and fanned, neck feathers spread revealing his bright skin patch, loud wing thumping, and making a deep wump-wump-wump, a sound that can be heard great distances by springtime hikers walking through the forest.
Dusky Grouse live their summers in mixed deciduous/conifer forests near open sagebrush flats. In the winter, as most mammals move down the mountains to lower elevations, this bird moves up the mountain where they roost in and live on the cones and needles of Douglas firs, pines, spruce, and hemlocks. They have a great plan because most all their predators head to lower elevations come winter offering leaving them safe in the higher elevations. What was that comment about bird brains? They may fly up to 30 miles to their seasonal range, but usually less than half that distance and many times simply walk between their summer and winter ranges. Dusky Grouse can be called altitudinal migrators. They are pretty much homebodies once they choose their home.
The females can lay up to 15 eggs, but usually 7-9. The young typically leave the nest a few days after hatching and follow their mother since dad has nothing to do with the nest or raising the young. Though they follow mom, right from the beginning the little ones must find their own food which consists of leaves, berries, and insects. The young are full grown at about 13 weeks, but can make short flights by 9 days old. Up to 50% of the young will not survive the first year, but if they do, their average lifespan is three years. In areas of ample food and low predation, however, birds have been known to live up to 14 years.
So the close encounter. Last September a friend and I were hiking in the mountains above Lamar Valley when I stepped off the trail to grab a snack. All of a sudden a grouse flew up, right next to me of course, making loud flapping and disturbing the dried grasses. Once again I almost had a heart attack. Sometimes I think they enjoy that part. I just stood there a minute to calm down when I heard very low coos. We looked and looked and suddenly, only a few feet away, we saw this year’s young, now fully grown, foraging in the grasses. We stood there probably 30 minutes watching and listening to their low, peaceful coos and peeps. They can actually be quite tame, but we are invaders in their habitat so we will stand quietly.
Boy do they blend. No wonder they always scare you. Can you see the three young in the picture below? Unfortunately the primary role of the grouse in the ecosystem is food for predators such as coyotes, bobcats, hawks, pine martens, eagles, and bears. They do, however, help control insects, particularly grasshoppers, and spread berry seeds throughout the ecosystem. They also give us a magical moment with nature.
Mom, who scared us, had flown into a big Doug fir, but we weren’t going anywhere and the young were happily going about their business, so she came back and stood on a rock between us and her “babies”. I just love the feathers down their legs and their lack of fear as she is within feet of us. Then as the others wander off, mom jumps down from the rock and follows them, leaving us with a wonderful experience.
Formerly known as Blue Grouse, 2006 DNA evidence divided the species into Dusky Grouse (Dendragapus fuliginosus). Sooty Grouse live along the California Pacific coast in the Sierra Madre Mountains. The Dusky Grouse is found in inland North American following the Rocky Mountains and nearby montane regions. What a treat to be part of their world on this beautiful autumn day.) and Sooty Grouse (
Until next time . . .