Spruce grouse are among my favorite birds. I know this is silly, but I have actually formed long-term relationships with a few of them. Two males annually set up adjacent territories along one of my preferred trails Down East. I’ve named the first one Bruce and the second one Bruce Deuce. In mating season, they are very aware of each other and have drawn a line across the forest floor that neither will cross.
Bruce is more mild mannered. Generally, he will sit on a branch and watch you. He will express disapproval if approached — usually by fanning his tail and fluffing his wings once or twice. Otherwise, he tolerates hikers pretty well. Bruce Deuce is moody. Sometimes he feeds in the tree just above the trail and shows no interest in people at all. At other times, he will follow hikers and shoo them off “his” trail. If he’s on his dust bath in the middle of the trail, forget it. Nothing will move him.
There is no hunting season for spruce grouse in Maine, though there is in Canada and a few northern states. Minnesota harvests over 10,000 per year, despite the fact that they taste like turpentine. The spruce grouse diet consists primarily of conifer needles. You are what you eat. I Googled recipes for spruce grouse and learned that they can be made almost palatable if smothered in so much blueberry or cranberry sauce that you can’t taste the meat.
Spruce grouse are often called Fool Hens because they appear to be tame. Unlike ruffed grouse, spruce grouse tolerate close human approach and don’t flee far when disturbed. Often, they simply flutter up to a low branch. Other times, they will walk contemptuously past a stationary person and continue to feed on the forest floor. Since they display this behavior even where they are hunted, I presume that their evolutionary instinct is to rely on concealment, bluff, and the safety of tree perches, rather than escape flight. They are the color of a sun-dappled forest floor, easily able to hide if they want to.
Wherever spruce grouse are gathered in the spring, there is more promiscuity happening than there is on an episode of Mad Men. Males stay within their well-defended territories and advertise for females. Multiple females may accept the invitation. From then on, it’s solely up to the hens to raise the broods.
The young are able to walk as soon as they are dry and can flutter up to a branch within a week. Young chicks need protein and rely on a diet of insects immediately after hatching. Soon they begin to seek berries, green plants and fungi for energy. This continues until late summer when they join mom in treetops for a diet of needles.
All of this explains why these birds are fun to watch. Males defend territories, and often put on a good show. Through summer, females and their broods search the ground for food where they are easier to spot. In autumn, mama and youngsters remain together. You can chance upon a half dozen foraging along an appropriate logging road. If you don’t frighten them, they will relax and continue feeding under your nose.
Spruce grouse aren’t rare in Maine, but they’re not common either. This bird is a denizen of dense coniferous forests across the northern part of the state. Bangor in the east and Bethel in the west are the southern limits of their interior range. They are well suited for the spruce-fir maritime forest along the coast and occupy small pockets of habitat as far south as Blue Hill. Still, even where suitable habitat exists, conservation of the species can be a challenge. Habitat loss and fragmentation is usually the culprit. They are endangered in New York and Vermont, threatened in Wisconsin, listed in New Hampshire and Michigan, and protected in Maine and Nova Scotia.
Stephen Dunham is studying wildlife ecology at the University of Maine. He’ll be at Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden at 7 p.m. Wednesday to talk about his latest research. He is analyzing spruce grouse population density and breeding success across several habitats typical of Maine’s industrial forests. These include mature conifers, pre-commercially thinned stands and advanced regenerating clear-cuts. He is working to develop a habitat model and recommendations for timber management practices that will yield profits for landowners and loggers, while maintaining healthy spruce grouse populations. The talk is free. That fits my budget nicely.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.