All About Grouse - Chickens That Wear Snowshoes — November - December 1998

by Stan Tekiela

male spruce grouse

Have you ever seen a chickenlike wild bird in your travels in Minnesota? If so, you might have run into one of the four members of the grouse family: ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, and greater prairie chicken. (Minnesota's other gallinaceous, or chickenlike, birds include wild turkeys, pheasants, bobwhite quail, and gray partridges.)

Minnesota's grouse species vary in important ways that allow them to live in different parts of the state. Two species - the sharptail and prairie chicken - live in open landscapes. Ruffed and spruce grouse live in forests.

A grouse has a crop (pouch) in its throat to hold food, such as tree seeds, buds, leaves, berries, and bugs, to digest later.

Minnesota grouse are polygamous, which means that one male will mate with more than one female. After mating, the female makes a nest on the ground where she incubates her eggs.

Downy yellow and brown feathers cover the hatchlings, which are able to follow their mother out of the nest within hours of hatching and fly short distances within two weeks, after their wing feathers grow.

ruffed grouse

Ruffed Grouse

The ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is Minnesota's most common grouse and one of the largest, measuring up to 19 inches long.

The ruffed grouse spends most of its time on the floor of deciduous forests. Young aspen trees provide cover, particularly for drumming males. In winter the grouse likes to eat the buds of aspen.

The ruffed grouse is nearly invisible to predators, thanks to its feathers in shades of gray and brown with small splashes of black and white.

The name ruffed comes from a row of dark feathers, called a ruff, around its neck. The bird can raise and lower its ruff and the small crest atop its head.

After mating, the female makes her nest at the base of a tree and lays one egg each day until she has a clutch of 12 to 14 eggs.

As ruffed grouse hunters know, the population of grouse goes up and down about every 10 years. High populations predictably fall to low ones.

Spruce Grouse

The spruce grouse (Dendragapus canadensis) lives in the northern coniferous forests of far northeastern and north-central Minnesota, where spruce trees are common. It measures 15 to 17 inches long.

The spruce grouse was common in Minnesota as late as 1880, but it almost disappeared as the forest was cut for logs and pulpwood. The increase of conifer forests after the logging boom ended has led to an increase in the number of spruce grouse.

spruce grouse ,p>Spruce grouse prefer to eat the needles of black spruce and white spruce trees. They also feed on jack pine and tamarack. During summer they eat blueberries, snowberries, and insects such as caterpillars and grasshoppers.

Usually a solitary bird, the spruce grouse forms small family groups in late summer or fall. These groups break up by late winter.

In the spring the male spruce grouse advertises for a mate by strutting or standing with his tail cocked and fully fanned to show his white-tipped under-tail feathers. He droops his wings slightly and puffs up his neck feathers.

The female nests in a well-hidden spot, often under a low branch or in thick brush or beneath a large pine or spruce tree. She lays one clutch of four to six eggs.

Sometimes you can walk right up to a spruce grouse and it won't fly away. Its fearlessness with humans has earned it the name "fool's hen," but it is adept at avoiding wild predators.

Sharp-Tailed Grouse

The sharp-tailed grouse (Tymanuchus phasianellus) is a bird of brushlands. Seeds and leaves make up most of its diet.

sharp-tailed grouse

As the bird's brushland habitat has disappeared, so have sharptails. Once found from southern to northern Minnesota and west to the Dakotas, they are now found only in a few northwestern and east-central counties. Increased brushland management such as controlled burning and clearing trees has led to more brushland and a modest increase in the number of sharp-tailed grouse in Minnesota.

The name sharp-tailed comes from its two long central tail feathers, which form a sharp point. An adult sharptail is 15 to 20 inches long. Both males and females are brown with white and black markings and a white belly. Like many grouse species, the sharptail's head has a crest of feathers, which it can raise and lower at will. The male has a small yellow comb over each eye.

Sharptails are known for dancing. Each spring up to 25 males gather in a grassy opening to dance to attract a mate. The dancing arena, called a lek, is used each year as long as it is not destroyed. Females fly into the lek to find the best dancer. They strut around while the males dance. The dominant males often dance near the center of the lek, where they are most likely to mate.

After mating, the female builds a well-camouflaged nest in tall prairie grass or under a shrub, usually within a mile of the lek.

Greater Prairie Chicken

The greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) is the least common of our Minnesota grouse. The prairie chicken is probably not native to Minnesota. It moved into the state from the southeast during the last half of the 1800s. The prairie chicken seemed to like the open areas created when forests were cleared for farmland.

In the 1950s and 60s, the prairie chicken lost many of the open areas it needed because people were plowing more land and planting more trees. It now lives only in northwestern and central Minnesota where some prairie plots are managed by fire.

greater prairie chicken

The prairie chicken is about 17 inches long and has a short, round tail. Males and females look alike: cinnamon brown with dark, heavy barring on the upper body turning lighter on the chest and belly. The male has yellow, fleshy eye combs and orange-yellow neck sacs, which show only during courtship.

Male prairie chickens attract mates by making a rich, deep sound, called booming. The booming sounds like someone blowing across the top of an empty bottle.

The female makes her nest on the ground among grass and low bushes. She incubates about a dozen eggs, which hatch in about 24 days.

Stan Tekiela is a Minnesota author and naturalist. His latest book is Birds of Minnesota Field Guide, published by Adventure Publications, Cambridge, Minn. Visit Stan at www.naturesmart.com.

A complete copy of the article can be found in the November-December 1998 issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, available at Minnesota public libraries.