There exists a native Minnesota bird that I have yet to observe in their natural habitat within our great state, much less anywhere else. The only specimens I’ve ever seen have been taxidermy mounts and study skins. And though I’ve hiked and hunted throughout northwest Minnesota where this inter- esting bird lives year ‘round, I’ve never bumped into a spruce grouse. Yet.
Spruce grouse are one of four native species of grouse that call Minnesota home. The other three include ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, and
greater prairie chicken. Like ruffed grouse, spruce grouse are forest species of grouse, whereas sharp-tailed
grouse and greater prairie chickens are considered prairie grouse. All four species share similar characteristics, but each are very unique in many ways, too.
Aside from obvious feature differences involving plumage coloration and other visible ele- ments, perhaps the most distinctive traits involve each of the species respective breeding behaviors and associated sounds and actions produced. Indeed, during springtime mating rituals, male ruffed grouse drum; male sharp-tailed grouse dance and stomp; male prairie chicken dance and boom; and male spruce grouse swish, whoosh, and clap.
Spruce grouse, as their name implies, are grouse of primarily spruce forests across the northernmost tier of the United States, includ- ing Minnesota, and through- out Canada and Alaska. Two races exist—the Franklin’s and Taiga. Our spruce grouse, belonging to the Taiga race, are common throughout Beltrami Island State Forest, Red Lake Wildlife Management Area, and northeast Minnesota. This docile behaving grouse, which often tolerates close encounters with people, has acquired the not-so-endear- ing nicknames “fool’s hen” or “fool’s grouse.” Other interesting nicknames are swamp partridge and spot- ted grouse.
A dark-ish colored bird with white bands across its breast and colorful heads of mixed red, yellow, and white, males of the species strut turkey-like by fanning their tail feathers during the breeding season. A beautiful rufous colored band adorn the tips of the Taiga race’s tail feathers, while black is the terminal tail feather color of the Franklin’s race. Weighing about 1.5 pounds with an overall length of around 16” and a wingspan of 22”, spruce grouse are only slight- ly smaller than ruffed grouse.
The tails, feet, and wings of grouse species are all used to some extent during courtship. These displays are all fascinating to watch and listen to. Spruce grouse make interesting swishing sounds with their tails. As males strut and fan their tails, they sweep their tails from side to side as they step ever so slowly, which imparts a sort of wobbly movement and appearance.
As he displays, generally in front of a hopeful mate, his fanned-out tail feathers make interesting, barely perceptible, raspy sounding noises. These sounds are made possible because each tail feather has small protrusions that catches the feather beneath, thus producing the strange swish-sound. Another sound produced that can be heard and seen is when he sudden- ly spreads out his tail feathers. In peacock or turkey fashion, this rapid fanning motion makes a whoosh sound.
Another behavior and sound often produced by dis- playing male spruce grouse involves gliding from a tree limb anywhere from 10 to 20 feet above the ground, fol- lowed by a quick and vertical turn of the body and hovering noisily to the forest floor. The Franklin’s race takes this display a step further by gliding 50 to 100 yards from a high perch followed by pro- ducing two very loud wing “claps” just before settling to the ground. The sound of the wing-claps are very similar to gun shots.