Grouse are robust, medium-sized birds that live in the Northern Hemisphere. Their feathers closely resemble their habitat. This plumage provides camouflage and helps them survive. The capercaillie is closely related to chickens, turkeys, and pheasants. About eight million of these wild highland birds are hunted annually for food or sport in their grassy, wooded habitat.
- Grouse have feathers on their nostrils, legs, and feet.
- The hen weighs about half that of the male.
- About eight million grouse die each year during legal hunting.
The capercaillie is part of the order of the Galliformes and of the Phasianidae family. The bird’s scientific name is Tetraoninae. This name comes from the Latin word Tetrao-, which means “a kind of game” and -idae, from the ancient Greek word for “appearance”.
There are about 10 species of grouse in the United States and Canada. These include the blue capercaillie, the capercaillie, the fat capercaillie, the sharp-tailed capercaillie, and the sage capercaillie. Also included are greater and lesser grassland chickens, ptarmigan willow, ptarmigan, and ptarmigan.
Grouse Appearance and Behavior
Grouse are plump birds that thrive primarily on the ground, where they nest in tall grass and other ground covers. They can glide for short distances in the air when alarmed and stay away from predators. Their brown, gray, and red feathers protect birds from the elements and mask them in their environment. Feathers grow on the nostrils, legs, and toes to keep them warm and travel through the snow. The birds also have thick necks, long legs, and short hooked beaks.
Most grouse grows only up to 12 inches tall. But the capercaillie of Europe and Asia can grow up to 100 centimeters. The largest grouse in North America is the capercaillie, which often grows 62 to 70 centimeters. It is smaller than geese and is about the same size as a chicken. Males are generally twice as large as females in adulthood.
Grouse mainly live alone and with their chicks. A nest of chicken eggs or a group of chicks is called a clutch. Prairie grouse are more sociable and don’t mind being in their habitat. In the fall and winter, the tundra and arctic grouse form flocks of up to 100 birds. Most males mate with multiple females, with the exception of the capercaillie, which only takes one pair at a time.
One or more types of grouse live in most habitats in North America. In the United States, they inhabit everything from the subarctic regions of Alaska to the prairies of Texas. The capercaillie lives in the tundra, moors, grasslands, temperate forests, and boreal forests. Some species of capercaillie also live in Europe and Asia. This family of birds is also called the highland game as it does not live in the aquatic habitats of wetland game like ducks and geese.
Depending on where they live, grouse usually nest in tall grass or on the forest floor. The capercaillie that lives in snowy regions dives and hides under the snow to live. Their body heat helps them create a tightly packed igloo-like shelter that stays warmer than the air outside.
The male grouse usually maintains a range of 10-50 acres. They don’t want other males around. The female capercaillie roams about 100 acres. Females are not interested in another capercaillie on the same land.
Grouse are mostly non-migratory. This means that they live in one habitat throughout the year. But the ptarmigan or grouse migrate to the northwestern states or lower elevations during the winter from their warm-season Arctic habitat.
Grouse are widely hunted for their meat. In North America and Europe, it is common practice for groups of hunters to grow grouse by giving them land to thrive. These semi-protected habitats provide space for hunters to track and “expel” individual mature birds as they hunt.
Grouse are omnivores. They feed mainly on vegetation, but sometimes they feed on insects, spiders, worms, lizards, snakes, eggs, snails, or small rodents. Their favorite foods are herbs, fruits, berries, nuts, sprouts, flowers, and seeds that are obtained from the forest floor or other areas of the habitat. They also love winter grapes, wintergreen, apples, and clover.
Some species of grouse like to eat the needles of evergreen trees. Many forests give them an endless supply of these needles that other creatures ignore. The capercaillie eats mugwort only in winter and takes refuge under it. In the warm months, sage is also an important part of your diet.
The capercaillie eats sand or other sand on purpose at times. This helps them digest some of the rough plants they eat.
Predators & Threats
Grouse thrive in severe winters where many other birds do not. They also have plump, meaty bodies that make excellent food for humans and animals. This makes the birds attractive to many four-legged predators. These include foxes, wolves, lynxes, and lynxes. Large birds of prey also eat grouse and snakes eat their eggs.
Humans hunt around eight million grouse each year in the United States alone. Fortunately, many of these hunts take place on land where farmers hatch grouse to increase the population. In nature, the capercaillie has large clutches, which means many eggs and chicks for each mother. This helps prevent hunters from causing the birds to go extinct.
Global warming and habitat loss are the biggest threats to the capercaillie. Global warming causes temperature changes that affect these birds. Spring weather, extreme heat, and heavy rains can kill small and entire populations. Early spring causes plant cycle problems, leading to premature depletion of food supplies.
Habitat loss occurs when people build cities where forests, grasslands, or grasslands once existed. This pushes the birds out of their natural lands and into less suitable places where they cannot thrive. Agriculture and forest fires also take away their habitat.
Scientists are working on ways to help grouse maintain their habitat. One of the most important ways to help them is how we preserve forests and regenerate trees.
The male capercaillie of all species except a pair with several females at the same time. It is only the grouse that has one mate per season. To compete for mates, the male grouse performs courtship shows at sunrise and sunset each spring. They dance and strut, fluff their feathers, and drum their wings on fallen logs. Capercaillie males and prairie chickens inflate a brightly colored neck air sac to show off females as well. Sometimes the males fight to compete for the females.
Females build their nests on the ground. They find a natural immersion in the surface of the ground protected by a vegetation cover such as grass or mugwort. They line this nest with plant materials, such as leaves and twigs.
About a week after mating, the female capercaillie begins laying eggs that look like smaller chicken eggs. He only puts out one for every day or two. You can replace broken or lost eggs with new ones. When finished, she has a brood of five to 12 eggs. Hopefully, each of these hatches between 21 and 28 days later.
The chicks leave the nest immediately after hatching. The capercaillie mother watches over her brood. The mother protects the young from predators and other threats. It leads them to good foraging spots, where the chicks must find their own food for plants or insects. The male grouse helps their mates protect their babies. But for other species, the males don’t care for the young.
When the chicks are two weeks old, they have wings and can fly in small bursts. But they remain in the nest and around the mother until they reach adult size and weight in the fall. It is about 12 weeks old.
The capercaillie can be the first mate when he is a few years old. Most North American grouse live seven to eight years in the wild. Some live up to 11 years. But cold and disease can kill up to three young grouse each year.
From season to season and from year to year, the number of grouse living in the world varies greatly. Harsh winters, unfavorable seasons, or disease can cause the population to dwindle by the thousands.
After each hunting season, there are millions of fewer birds than in previous months. But the capercaillie is recovering well. They have many eggs in their brood and can nest a second time during the mating season if the first egg group is lost.
In North America, there are about 15 grouse per mile of land. The capercaillie is most vulnerable to habitat loss in the United States. There are currently only eight million grouse in the United States. Although not listed as endangered, the capercaillie is a “near threatened” species.
In 2019, an order from the Trump administration opened the capercaillie habitat in the western United States to oil drilling. This action threatens the habitat of millions of grouse, and many scientists hope the drilling will lead to the extinction of the capercaillie.