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Up close with a fool hen

Spruce grouse seem to be on the decline

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 10/18/17

“How come he isn’t flying away?”

That was the question from a small group of hikers we encountered last weekend when Jodi and I visited the North Shore to enjoy the colors. They were …

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Up close with a fool hen

Spruce grouse seem to be on the decline


“How come he isn’t flying away?”

That was the question from a small group of hikers we encountered last weekend when Jodi and I visited the North Shore to enjoy the colors. They were standing about 40 feet down a trail north of Tofte. They’d been headed in our direction, but a grouse had them stopped in their tracks.

The bird appeared to pay no attention to them, or to us, who had come up from the other direction. Instead, it was happily picking at the trail surface, no doubt picking up bits of grit that help its gizzard grind up its food.

“It’s a spruce grouse,” I said to the other group. “They’re also called ‘fool’s hens’ for obvious reasons,” I added.

The other group seemed pretty pleased, but after a minute or so, they decided to make their way down the trail, assuming that the bird would finally take off as they did. Instead, he strutted a few feet off the trail, and watched as they walked past him.

As soon as they left, he was right back to the trail and we were able to watch him for several more minutes. All I had was a small point-and-shoot camera, not my Canon SLR, with the long zoom lens I usually use for wildlife photography. Turns out I didn’t need the big guns. I was able to walk right up to this bird, and got the pictures here from about ten feet away. This bird appears to have been an immature male, which can be determined by its dark plumage, particularly the black patch on its breast, which should extend to its throat region over the next several months. The red comb around its eyes is another telltale sign of the male, and they tend to be fuller come breeding season, when the males display. Females are a much drabber brown throughout the year.

Spruce grouse aren’t all that common anymore in northern Minnesota. Like a lot of boreal forest species, they seem to have declined in number in recent years. I used to see them pretty regularly while traipsing through the black spruce stands of the Lost Lake Swamp, but it’s been several years now since I’ve run across one out there.

They’re still around but, like moose, just not in the numbers we used to see.

Spruce grouse, as their name suggests, are largely dependent on spruce and other conifers. They’ve adapted to a diet of spruce and pine needles and buds, which makes them pretty scarce in places where conifers aren’t the dominant cover type. As species like red maple, basswood, and oak increasingly invade our region, aided by warming temperatures and soil changes attributable to the spread of exotic earthworms, good spruce grouse habitat is growing scarcer.

Like ruffed grouse, spruce grouse have big broods and the young are pretty precocious, typically being able to fly within just a couple weeks. They stay with their mother for about three months, before their family covey breaks up, usually in late summer or early fall.

As spruce grouse head into winter, they’re bodies actually undergo some significant changes. Their gizzard grows about 75 percent larger and the rest of their intestinal tract grows about 40 percent longer to accommodate the larger amount of food the birds must consume and digest to maintain their body temperature in the winter months.

While spruce grouse are found throughout most of Canada, they are found only in a few isolated parts of the lower 48, including far northern Minnesota, a small portion of the far northern Rockies, and northern Maine.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the species does appear to have declined markedly in some parts of its range, particularly on the southern fringes. It appears that habitat loss is the biggest threat to the species. The spruce grouse is found only in North America, although a closely-related species, the Siberian grouse, is found in Asia.

Over the years, I’ve shot a few spruce grouse, mostly in low light where they can be tough to distinguish from their ruffed cousins. Their meat is considerably darker than that of a ruffed grouse with a gamier taste that some people don’t like, although I find it perfectly palatable. Still, these days in particular, I’d rather watch them than eat them.


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Very interesting on change in size of Gizzard etc. I do know their crop is often full of jackpine needles.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017