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Blue Grouse: Getting The Blues Is A Good Thing

“Getting the blues” – to some it might mean a feeling of depression or enduring unhappiness, to others a music genre developed by African Americans. Or it might mean successfully hunting a prized BC game bird, blue grouse.

First, there is some confusion about this bird’s common names. Blue grouse (Dendragapus species) are the largest of the four groups of grouse currently found in BC: blue, ruffed, spruce and sharp-tail. A fifth, the sage grouse, was unfortunately extirpated from BC in the early 1900s. However, “blue” grouse are not currently considered a single species, but two – sooty grouse (Dendragapus fuliginous) on the coast and dusky grouse (Dendragapus obscurus)in the interior.

Blue Grouse, photo by iStock: In the spring breeding season, blue grouse males raise feathers on either side of their necks to expose a large halo of white feathers surrounding a brightly coloured bare neck patch.
Blue Grouse, photo by iStock: In the spring breeding season, blue grouse males raise feathers on either side of their necks to expose a large halo of white feathers surrounding a brightly coloured bare neck patch.

Lewis and Clark described these two birds on their 1804 to 1806 expedition across the northern US, and for the next 100 years these grouse were classified as separate species. But then in the early 1900s, they were grouped together as one species: blue grouse. This classification lasted for the next 100 years, and some texts described four subspecies of blue grouse in BC. In 2006, however, based on genetics, behaviour and physical features, the American Ornithologist’s Union split blue grouse again into two species. Sooty grouse is the common name for blue grouse of the wet coastal forests and dusky the name of blue grouse of the drier interior forests. A simple mnemonic to keep these common names straight is sooty-soggy and dusky-dry. Although they are two species, there are enough similarities that the name blue grouse lingers and the two may be grouped together (in the BC hunting regulations for example). For this article, blue grouse is used when talking about both species.

Blue grouse are birds of western North America, found from the Yukon to Mexico and from the Pacific shore to the Rocky Mountains. However, within this range, their distribution is not uniform. Another common name is mountain grouse, which suggests their preferred habitat of coniferous forests on mountain slopes. Flat or treeless land is not suitable for blue grouse. With ample amounts of both forests and mountains in BC, blue grouse can be found throughout the province and, in fact, we hold a high proportion of the world population. They are not found in the generally flat boreal forest in northeastern BC. Historically, these birds were also not found on some of the islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland, but that is no longer the case. In the late 1940s, sooty grouse were released on Texada Island, and during the 1970s on Lasqueti and several other Gulf Islands. Not all such translocations were successful, but sooty grouse are now found on most of the larger BC islands.

Although a common name of these grouse is “blue,” the colour of their plumage is a subtle mix of several dark shades flecked with white. There is significant sexual dimorphism; that is, males and females do not look much alike. The males, feathered with black, brown, grey and blue hues, are much darker than the smaller, reddish-brown-coloured females. Immature males look a lot like the females. Both sexes have dark tail feathers, which on sooty grouse are tipped with a white band that is missing or faint on dusky grouse. Sooty grouse usually have 18 tail feathers to the dusky grouse’s 20, but apparently the number of tail feathers can vary between 15 and 22. Their legs are not bare, but feathered almost to the toes. Above each eye, the males have a bright yellow or orange patch while the females have a small patch of bare skin. In the spring breeding season, males raise feathers on either side of their necks to expose a large halo of white feathers surrounding a brightly coloured bare neck patch called the cervical apteria. This neck patch is usually yellow on sooty grouse and red or purple on dusky grouse.

In spring, blue grouse males claim a territory and set about to attract mates. Starting mid-March, they announce these intentions with a series of low, owl-like hoots. Sooty grouse males like to hoot from tree branches, while dusky males call mostly from the ground. If a female shows an interest, the male struts about with his feathers fluffed up, dragging his wing tips and with his colourful neck and eyebrow patches fully inflated and exposed. The attraction is immediate, but the relationship is brief, lasting only minutes from meeting through mating to parting. The female then leaves to build herself a nest and raise the chicks. There is no further intentional association between this male and this mate or their offspring. Rather, the male resumes his courtship activities in case there is another receptive female in the area with whom to create another family. A hen whose eggs were destroyed or eaten by predators may breed again, so hooting and courting can continue until mid-July.

The female lays her eggs in a shallow nest of twigs and leaves in a protected spot on the ground, under a dense shrub or fallen log. The average clutch size is six, but can be twice that many or as few as two. Incubation takes about three weeks. Only a day after hatching, the chicks leave the nest, follow their mother, and begin feeding on their own. High-protein foods such as grubs and insects are high on the menu for blue grouse chicks, but they gradually shift to the adult diet, which is primarily vegetation such as buds and shoots of shrubs and trees. Conifer needles are an important part of their diet, particularly in winter. After only a week or so, blue grouse chicks attempt their first flights. They are full grown by September and the family group breaks apart. Life is precarious for these birds – almost half will die before their first birthday. Although a blue grouse may live to be 14, in the wild few live to be older than three.

One unusual aspect of blue grouse lifecycle is the migration between summer and winter range, which varies by geographic location. In summer, blue grouse throughout BC generally select habitats that are in or adjacent to open or lightly forested areas, such as alpine, logged cutblocks, meadows or farmland. However, during September, virtually all blue grouse will migrate to more densely forested winter ranges. In northern BC, this migration is most often downhill, from the summer range in alpine meadows to lower-elevation spruce and pine forests. In the southern part of the province, this migration is more likely to be uphill, the wintering ground being the high-elevation forests of spruce, balsam and pine. The blue grouse of the coast will migrate both down from high-elevation summer range or up from low-elevation meadows to winter in densely forested areas midslope on the mountains.

Blue grouse have a complex relationship with forestry. Extensive logging of key winter range can significantly reduce local grouse numbers. On the other hand, logging can dramatically increase the extent and suitability of summer range and breeding habitat, and that can trigger a blue grouse population explosion. This inflated population may continue for several years. However, once the forest canopy begins to close in, the habitat becomes less suitable, and gradually the population declines. Eventually, in a dense, second-growth forest, there will be few blue grouse.

Weather, too, can cause variations in blue grouse population density, particularly conditions in the spring. Cool, wet weather in May and June can be devastating for chick survival, and thus reduce populations for the rest of that year. However, with favourable conditions the next spring, blue grouse numbers can rebound immediately.

As a game bird, blue grouse have a lot going for them. One is size – blues are the largest of our forest-dwelling grouse, the male weighing slightly more than a kilogram, the female slightly less. For another, blue grouse can be challenging to hunt. They may sit tight in a tree and watch you walk right by, or you can have the pants scared off of you when an unseen three-pound bird bursts from cover right at your feet. A third attraction of blue grouse is the succulent, mild-tasting, white breast meat. So, at least for BC bird hunters, “getting the blues” is a good thing.