Grouse, the harbingers of spring

A sharp-tailed grouse bows, tail in the air, as part of the bird’s mating ritual.

by Scot Stewart

Looking for signs of spring can be one of the most engaging pastimes in places where winter can linger for six or seven months. Dripping icicles can be an exhilarating sight. Swelling buds, the first robin, a blooming dandelion alongside a building: they all make the heart sing! Figuring out this spring has been a hard nut to crack, but some of the seams connecting the two seasons can arouse a sense of wonder from the sights and sounds of year-round resident birds anxious to usher in spring and an opportunity to pass their genes on to the coming generation.

There are three species of grouse in the Upper Peninsula, part of a group of about 12 species of grouse across North America. Conservation genetics currently uses genetic analysis to examine the DNA of these and other species of grouse living here to determine if they are varieties, subspecies or separate species of birds. Currently there is one subspecies of ruffed grouse, two of spruce grouse and seven subspecies of sharp-tailed grouse, but one is already thought to be extinct.

The three grouse species of the Upper Peninsula fall into two types, two forest grouse, the ruffed and spruce grouse, and one grasslands type, the sharp-tailed. Their habitats contribute greatly to the breeding behavior, food choices and plumage. These close relatives lead very different lives. Coming to know them is a window into three sometimes subtle slices of the diversity of the Upper Peninsula’s landscape and an amazing look at the specific adaptations three creatures have made to survive here.

A spruce grouse perches on a tree branch.

Most Upper Peninsula residents have the greatest familiarity with ruffed grouse. Known by many as “partridge,” it is the most common grouse in the state and the only one hunted. They are the grouse of the aspen forest. Ruffed grouse are found in forested areas having a mix of trees like aspen, oak, birch, hazel and alder, and prefer areas with at least 25 percent aspen—trembling and big-toothed. This type of habitat provides a winter diet primarily of leaf and flower buds of aspen, but also buds of cherry, ironwood, willow, birch, ironwood and beaked hazel.

Ruffed grouse populations are a bit of a mystery as they rise and fall in cycles lasting about 10 years. Food availability, habitat quality, predators and weather are probably all factors in the numbers but some part may be related to the number of offspring produced in conjunction with the conditions present between mating and fledging.

Ruffed grouse can maintain territories of as little as four acres, a space they may hold their entire lives, to big territories of 35 or 40 acres when the quality is low. They avoid thicker conifer stands, preferring areas with greater visibility to afford views of their surroundings to watch for great horned owls, northern goshawks, bobcats, foxes and fishers. In summer they eat insects, greens like clover, wild strawberries and mast like acorns. During winter the areas they cover shrink to under 10 acres, and they feed on buds of leaves and flowers of aspen. If need be, they’ll also munch on birch, willows and hazel. During cold nights when the snow is more than 10 inches deep, light and fluffy, they tunnel in to roost under the snow and conserve heat.

Ruffed grouse spend a lot of time on the ground, a story told in the tracks in the snow across their foraging day. Scaly projections emerge from their toes in winter and, like the added breadth of snowshoes, aid in their travels through the snow. In early spring, males find a fallen log or stump where they will “drum” to advertise their claim over territory and attract several females for mating. They drum through the entire year, but during April and May, as the daylight reaches specific length, their displays peak as they close their open wings quickly over their flanks, beating the air and creating a dull thumping that increases in frequency from about once a second to a rolling thump with barely discernible spaces between the beats.

Tails fan out, and the ruff in their mane spreads, creating a large black fluffy collar around their head, looking similar to Queen Elizabeth I, only darker. The feathers make their heads look three to four times larger. Two or three females usually find each male, mate then return to lay up to 14 eggs to care for themselves. Young will stay with the hens until autumn, dispersing in an event called the “fall shuffle,” to find their own territories.

A spruce grouse is pictured.

Leks are places where male birds, like grasslands grouse, gather, display and compete with other male birds of the same species to attract and potentially mate with female birds. Here leks are places where dancing happens for sharp-tailed grouse. Sharp-tails like open grassy areas with small almost unnoticeable rises. They begin appearing on leks while there is still snow on the ground in late spring.

Mornings begin around 30 to 45 minutes before the first seam of light breaks across the horizon. Males slowly begin to fly in from cover along the grassland edges where they roosted on the ground overnight. They walk on and around the small knoll at the center of the lek, finding their spots. Their first sounds are not unlike a soft, up-tempo snare drum, as they seem to be warming up their legs. They are rattling tail feathers

Even before their images are clear in the dim light, small white triangles seem to zoom across the grass. Sharp-tails, living up to their name, hold their pointed tails perpendicularly into the air, their undersides a very light buff color. The result is a dim triangle, darting across the short grass as they rev up their dancing in the still dim light.

As the light brightens, it becomes clearer how the dance works. Holding their wings out in wide arches, tips pointing slightly downward, their legs pumping like race car pistons, they glide around their small piece of the lek, challenging any other male coming too close to the edge of their piece. They call out in gentle clucks while they glide over parts of their turf.

After zooming about for a minute or less, they stop, and often vocalize with a call more like a turkey. As they stand and assess the others on the lek they give out a clearer call, a “Gobble guck,” and occasionally boom, letting out a deep “coo” using inflatable bright pink sacs on the sides of their necks to provide the power and the air. Add bright eyebrows the color of a 15-minute-old sun, an upturned tail, outstretched wings and flared out neck feathers and there is an impressive looking dawn dancer.

The eastern U.P. has some of the best habitat for sharp-tails and a solid population, especially south of Sault Ste. Marie to Rudyard and Pickford. There is a short three week hunting season across this area in October. Sharp-tails were also well known for their presence in the Great Manistique Swamp and later near Steuben. There was even a population on Isle Royale following the days of mining and later fires on the island. A small population is known today on the MNDR lands east of Limestone in Alger County.

Spruce grouse are probably the least seen grouse of the three in the Upper Peninsula. They are not shy—rather they are quite tame in Michigan, where they are not hunted. Some call them “fool hen,” but the late Dr. William Robinson, who studied them for years and wrote the book by the same name, preferred the term trustworthy, an admirable quality for the birds. They are much more rare, though. than the other two species of grouse here. They prefer areas of conifers—pines and spruce. During the summer they feed on conifer needles, some insects, spiders, plus the leaves, flowers and fruit of blueberry plants. Because of their diet, spruce grouse are not considered particularly tasty to humans, and due to their low numbers here they are not hunted.

While the spruce grouse don’t dance, males do strut, fanning out their tails and then pulling them back in a bit. They also spread their breast feathers, making them look much larger. Both tail and breast feathers are midnight black with striking white marking. The tails have three narrow horizontal white spots, creating a bold background behind them. They have bright crimson eyebrows that truly stand out in in the field of black they create.

Spruce grouse flutter loudly up into the branches of pines and repeat the sounds as they fly back to the ground during courtship. They also flap their wings in a way similar to ruffed grouse, but only once or twice at a time, making a sound more like clapping. It is done on the ground and while perched on pine branches. Their broods are the smallest of the three species.

Darkest of the three, spruce grouse can be maddeningly difficult to find in the conifers of the Yellow Dog Plains, the Sands Plains, Baraga Plains and many small pockets of wild, thick spruce, red and jack pine, like those in the McCormick Wilderness Preserve in western Marquette County. Winter foods are mostly needles of spruce and pine. In summer they also feed on blueberry leaves, flowers and fruit, insects and other arthropods.

Quiet walks in the woods, listening and watching, and frosty early mornings in a blind are some of the best ways to find some of the early signs of a new season of amazing sights, sounds and the rights of spring, grouse style.

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