BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Grouse
It would be tempting to subtitle this piece "Grousing About Grouse," but there are plenty of reasons not to. For one thing, it was already used for a section on gallinaceous birds in an earlier Hindsight installment about range and habitat (http://mbwbirds.com/maps.html). Once is enough for this phrase – after all, it's not all that original or clever or funny. (Besides, as silly as it sounds, it's always possible someone out there might somehow think I was serious and really disliked grouse.)
There are relatively few ID problems among the ten species in the Order Galliformes which are included on the Minnesota list. The greater difficulty – the main thing to grouse about – tends to be just finding them in the first place. We are all familiar with how elusive rails, owls, and nightjars can be, but turning up a Spruce Grouse or Gray Partridge can be just as tough. There can also be a problem with how "countable" some are, considering how many are raised at game farms or elsewhere and how often they escape or get intentionally released.
In addition to identification, accordingly, this article will include hints on how to find gallinaceous birds and when to suspect captive origin. When relevant, other comments will be given for some species: range (all are generally permanent residents, non-migratory, and seldom stray out-of-range), season (some months are better than others for finding grouse), habitat (obviously), behavior (knowing their habits makes some easier to find), and vocalizations and other non-vocal sounds (though these tend to figure little in finding or identifying most species).
Though not currently found on the Minnesota checklist, it is appropriate to include Chukar in this discussion, since it was considered a locally established resident here decades ago, and individuals still escape from game farms.
Given a reasonable look, this introduced species presents no real ID problems (but see Chukar below). Except for the northeastern quarter of the state, they can occur wherever there are fields and open country. But, curiously, I can't recall ever finding partridge in tracts of native prairie – they always seem to be in disturbed areas: croplands, vacant lots at the edge of town, roadside shoulders and ditches, railroad right-of-ways, farmyards, etc.
This highly sought bird is best looked for in winter when individuals flock together and are more easily spotted against a snowy background. Also try late summer or fall when family groups are out running around. Conversely, it can often seem impossible to find in spring and early summer, and note that no flocks are around then, only singles or nesting pairs.
Your best bet is to look for partridge feeding along roadsides at dawn or dusk. And look on the ground. Period. I have never seen one up on a fence post, shrub, wire, or any other perch. (I was amazed once to see one run up on an artificial dirt mound in response to a recording, but that's about it.) And it is nothing short of amazing how they can flatten themselves and disappear into grass no more than a few inches high after being spotted.
At least this species presents listers with few "countability" problems. About the only out-of-range sighting I remember raising questions of origin was years ago in the Duluth railroad yards. Odds are this individual was from the prairies and stumbled aboard a freight car hauling grain to the Duluth harbor.
Since pheasants aren't nearly as hard to find or as highly sought as partridge and involve only one potential ID problem, this section will be brief. It's another introduced species, generally ranging throughout the same farmlands (i.e., throughout except northeastern Minnesota), although they tend to be rare or absent in northwestern Minnesota. Interestingly, they were locally established in the Duluth-Superior harbor area until 1991, when essentially wiped out by that infamous Halloween snowstorm. Occasional pheasants are still reported in Duluth and vicinity, but these certainly represent escaped/released individuals.
The one ID difficulty here occurs in summer and early fall when young pheasants are around. Their pointed tails are not fully grown, thus inviting them to be mistaken for Sharp-tailed Grouse. So, when this latter species is reported south of its normal range, it seems likely the observer was actually seeing a young pheasant.
Consider that several birders with 700+ on their North American life lists have never seen a Spruce Grouse. What better evidence is there to illustrate this has to be Minnesota's most elusive gallinaceous bird – perhaps Minnesota's most elusive bird of any kind?
Spruce Grouse occur in the coniferous forest zone from Roseau to Cook counties, with probably the best numbers in parts of Beltrami Island State Forest in Lake of the Woods County. They are consistently reported as well in Koochiching County, in St. Louis County north of the Iron Range, in Lake County as close as 15-20 miles north of Two Harbors, and in Cook County starting about 15 miles inland from the lake. While there have been isolated reports in heavily birded Aitkin County, the Sax-Zim Bog, and along the North Shore of Lake Superior, I have yet to see any of these documented. [Author's Note, August 2016 – There is now a record of one photographed along the North Shore in Lake Co. in November 2012.]
Most Spruce Grouse searches tend to be along roadsides in winter at dawn, when deep snow seems to force them out to pick at salt and grit. The most popular roads for birders are in Lake County: the northern third of County Road 2, and Minnesota Highway 1 between Isabella and the Kawashiwi River. At best, though, the sightings are erratic: on one morning a flock of a dozen might be standing in the road, but scour the area the next morning – or just five minutes later on the same day – and you'll often come up empty.
Mid-summer through fall is worth trying, when grouse groups with young are out wandering about. Or try springtime, when males are performing display flights (listen for a sudden, explosive flutter of wings) and can be attracted to recordings of female vocalizations. (Males give a curious, seldom-heard snoring or snort; they are also said to give soft, low-pitched hoots, but there is some uncertainty about this.) The worst time to look, at least in Minnesota, has to be in early summer when females are concealed on nests and invisible males stand motionless back in the woods.
Despite its name, Spruce Grouse are actually more associated with jack pines, at least in this part of the continent. Yes, they are in woods predominated by spruce, balsam fir, or northern white cedar, but looking in conifer stands with a jack pine component makes the most sense. I doubt they occur much in red or white pine stands or tamarack bogs, and I have never heard of one in a predominantly deciduous woods.
Similarly, don't be misled by its nickname, Fool Hen. While it's true that Spruce Grouse are typically tame in their behavior, it doesn't follow that any such grouse is this species. Be aware that a Ruffed Grouse often acts excessively tame as well, and birders unaware of this mistakenly assume such a bird has to be a Spruce Grouse. Clearly, this is one of the most frequent ID errors involving gallinaceous birds.
Indeed, a Ruffed Grouse does resemble a female Spruce Grouse when its distinctive sub-terminal tail band isn't visible – or especially when it's one of those few showing a non-black tail band (see Ruffed Grouse below). And note that some female Spruce Grouse have a nondescript tail pattern, lacking a rusty tail tip. But if the grouse in question shows a crest and has thick black bands on its flanks, it's a Ruffed. Spruce Grouse lack a crested head profile (as do a few Ruffeds), and their underparts are densely and uniformly barred, with no contrasting flank markings.
As with others in this sedentary group, consider the possibility of a game farm escape when a Spruce Grouse is reported out-of-range or out-of-habitat. This seems to be the most logical explanation for an apparently correctly identified bird found in a deciduous area of southern Pine County in 1982 (see The Loon 54:200-202).
This grouse can not only resemble the Spruce Grouse in appearance (be sure to see above for ID comments on crests and flanks) and behavior (again, Ruffeds can act just as tame), but at times they can be just as hard to find. In spring and early summer the male's drumming can be heard (or is it felt?) wherever there are extensive woodlands in northern, central, and southeastern Minnesota counties. But it's tough at this time of year to follow the sound to the grouse's drumming log and actually see one, and many listers have to settle for a heard-only encounter.
As with other species, try later in the summer when family groups are out and about. An even better time is fall through winter when there is less foliage in the way and when Ruffed Grouse do a couple things to make them easier to spot. Especially at dawn and dusk, watch for them feeding on catkins of aspens, birch, and alders – often conspicuously out in the open in the higher branches. At the same time of day they will regularly appear at favored bird feeding stations with seeds spread on the ground or on low platforms. But watch cautiously then: when at feeders they tend to be quite wary and not at all tame.
Though Ruffed Grouse tend to favor deciduous or mixed woods, I have seen them in solid coniferous forests where only Spruce Grouse should have been, and this can lead to misidentifications. And, as you try to see whether or not that grouse lurking in the spruce bog has a tail band, it's important to know that not all Ruffed Grouse tail bands are black: a few are brown, or even reddish-brown! It's certainly easy to see how one with such a tail could be mistaken for a Spruce Grouse, especially if it's tame and in a spruce bog.
Just as Ruffed and Spruce grouse can overlap in range and habitat, so can Ruffeds and Sharp-taileds. This latter species, though, is generally in more open landscapes along and north of a diagonal line from Polk to Pine counties, but absent from Lake and Cook counties and other solidly wooded areas. With many farmlands abandoned and overgrown in recent decades, this grouse has declined in numbers, but there seems to be an increase in reports lately from west central and southwestern Minnesota. While some of these may refer to misidentified pheasants (see above), and the question of game farm escapes/releases could be raised (usually not an issue with this species), some could be genuine Sharp-taileds wandering east from the Dakotas.
Of course, the surest way to see this sought-after bird is to get directions to a lek when they're displaying in spring. Photographers may prefer to enter blinds well before dawn, but birders can sleep in a bit: the grouse are usually still active and visible from roadsides a couple hours after sunrise. Sharp-tailed lek sites, though, are often unreliable. While some are consistent for years, others will have moved elsewhere after a year – some can even change unpredictably on a weekly or even daily basis within a season.
This grouse is decidedly elusive at other times of day and seasons, and finding any then is a matter of luck. In winter months, however, Sharp-taileds sometimes have the habit of venturing into the open to feed on tamarack cones or alder catkins – not at dawn or dusk, but curiously around an hour or two after sunrise. I've spotted them this way several times over the years, but I'm always surprised when I do.
A Sharp-tailed's tail is pointed (or sharp, if you prefer – again, beware of juvenile pheasants), but it isn't as long as some birders expect. It shows a lot of white on displaying and flying birds, and the ID of this and the previous two grouse is straightforward if their tails are visible. But when its tail is out of sight, a Sharp-tailed can still be told by its distinctively pale underparts: relatively lightly spotted on the breast and practically all-white on the belly, quite unlike Ruffed and Spruce grouse and prairie-chickens. Also note how much paler than a prairie-chicken it appears in flight, with uniform white spotting across its upper wings.
While looking for Sharp-taileds in parts of northwestern Minnesota, you might as well watch for prairie-chickens too. They sometimes share the same leks, and the two are even known to hybridize. Prairie-chickens currently are found locally in a narrow band from southwestern Otter Tail County, north through Wilkin (e.g., Rothsay WMA) and Clay (e.g., Bluestem Prairie SNA and Felton) counties, and at least up to the prairie preserves southeast of Crookston in Polk County. They've also been introduced in the Lac Qui Parle area. (Several decades ago, this species was nearly statewide in occurrence, and until recently there were still a few in parts of Cass, Hubbard, and Wadena counties.)
Like Sharp-taileds, prairie-chickens are most easily seen when displaying on their leks and most easily missed at other times. Curiously, though, be sure to note they will sometimes gather at their leks at dusk as well as dawn, and in fall as well as spring. On the average, prairie-chicken lek sites seem more reliable over the years than those of Sharp-taileds; often when a lek gets plowed up they'll keep displaying there anyway. Prairie-chickens will also forage in these same croplands.
Unlike most gallinaceous birds, the sound given by a prairie-chicken is as distinctive as its appearance. This regular low-pitched "booming" given by a displaying male differs from the Sharp-tailed's more nondescript and random sounds. In the pre-dawn gloom, also note how displaying males differ in silhouette: the prairie-chicken with wings held by the body and both tail (short, all-dark, and rounded) and pinnae (neck feathers) projecting above the body; the Sharp-tailed with wings spread out and only the tail elevated.
As indicated in the previous section, birds away from the leks and with tails not visible are still easily identified. In contrast to the Sharp-tailed's paler and lightly spotted underparts, note the prairie-chicken's uniform and dense barring throughout its underparts.
Willow Ptarmigan / Rock Ptarmigan
As unlikely as it seems, two ptarmigan species have managed to wander as far south as Minnesota. The first Willow record was a 1914 specimen. Then, for some reason, at least a couple hundred Willows staged a unique invasion into the state during the winter of 1933-34. There's also a second-hand report of two Willows at a feeder in 1964 (see The Loon 36:66), but the description is vague, and there is nothing to indicate – even if they were ptarmigan – why they weren't Rocks.
At first, many thought the Rock Ptarmigan record in May 1996 from Grand Marais (The Loon 68:79-81) was even more incredible. But this species is no less likely than a Willow to occur here, given there are at least three records of Rocks from southern Canada within a hundred miles of the U.S. border. I have to wonder, though, had this not been a white, basic-plumaged male with diagnostic black loral smudges, if it would have been assumed to be a Willow. Though the ID of male ptarmigan in all plumages is not difficult, the females and young are really tough to tell without bill measurements.
Accordingly, if and when the next ptarmigan is reported this far south, let's hope it's another male. Clues involving season, habitat, and behavior won't determine its ID, and only males on the breeding grounds utter diagnostic vocalizations. The issue of an escape from captivity will also have to be addressed, since Willows, at least, are kept at some game farms. I'll also have to wonder how often albinism can occur in grouse, leading to one being mistaken for a ptarmigan. [Author's Note, August 2016 – There is a 2009 photograph from St. Louis Co. of a leucistic/albino Spruce Grouse which looks remarkably like a ptarmigan.]
The appearance and vocalizations of turkeys present no real ID problems, but trying to tell if it's a truly wild one can be daunting. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources introduction of wild birds in the last few decades has been successful, with wild, established, and "countable" populations in the southeastern quarter of the state. But in many places in northern and western Minnesota (turkeys of captive origin can turn up anywhere) you have to wonder if those you see come from some local barnyard or game farm.
I, for one, couldn't draw you a line showing the range limit of established DNR releases, but I do make guesses – not all of them educated – about when a turkey added to a day's checklist would be a dubious entry. If it's up here in Duluth or elsewhere far from its core southeastern Minnesota range, if it's in a farmyard, suburban landscape, or some other unnatural habitat, or if it stands its ground and fails to head away from me when I stop to look, I then tend not to take it too seriously.
[Author's Note, August 2016 – In recent years, truly "Wild" Turkeys have apparently become established as far as the Canadian border from Koochiching Co. westward, and up to southwestern St. Louis Co., including the Sax-Zim Bog and vicinity.]
Like turkeys, the ID of bobwhites presents no caveats (but see Chukar below), although there is a definite issue about escapes/releases from captivity. Unlike turkeys, though, it's easy to tell if a bobwhite you see in Minnesota is wild and countable. The answer: none of them is.
After research into the status of this species here and in adjacent states (see The Loon 75:3-7), in 2004 the MOU's records committee reclassified it as Extirpated – i.e., a bobwhite population was formerly established in the wild in Minnesota, but it no longer exists. Yes, bobwhites are still seen in the state (like turkeys, they can appear anywhere), but they're all assumed to be recent escapes or releases from captivity.
At least into the 1970s, presumably wild bobwhites occurred from the southern edge of the Twin Cities down through southeastern Minnesota. For a short time in the 1980s, bobwhites were also being spotted in Rock County, birds thought to be wild having wandered in from nearby South Dakota. By the 1990s, though, the only bobwhites which seemed to be wild were limited to south central Houston County, although perhaps even these were all of captive origin.
So what's a Minnesota lister to do? If you saw a bobwhite, say, in Houston County in 1995, was it wild or not? How about in 1990 or 2000? You're on your own: neither I nor anyone else can give a clear-cut expiration date for wildness. The best you can do, as with Wild Turkey, is consider the county it was in, the habitat, and its behavior.
I suppose it's possible for someone unfamiliar with this species to mistake one for a Gray Partridge (both show rusty tails in flight) or a male Northern Bobwhite (both have white throats outlined with black). But this is yet another species kept widely in game farms which can literally turn up as an escape in any Minnesota county, so don't be too surprised if you find one. You won't find it, though, on the current Minnesota list of bird species, but this was not always the case: Chukar was once a member in good standing on our checklist.
Starting in the 1930s, Chukars were introduced widely in Minnesota and elsewhere, but virtually all populations in states east of the Rockies eventually died out. A few Chukars, however, took a liking to the rocky slopes of abandoned open-pit iron mines in Ely, and seemed to be wild, established, and countable. By the 1970s, however, their numbers diminished, and the last one there was reported in July 1977. Accordingly, this population never really lived up to being established after all, and the species was eventually removed from this state's checklist.
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There are 11 other gallinaceous species found in North America: Himalayan Snowcock (an introduced exotic), Greater and Gunnison sage-grouse, White-tailed Ptarmigan, Blue Grouse, Lesser Prairie-Chicken, and Mountain, Scaled, California, Gambel's, and Montezuma quail. [Author's Note, April 2018 – The "Blue Grouse" has been split into Sooty and Dusky grouse, so that there are now 12 other gallinaceous species.] There is no need to discuss these, however, since all are resident far from here with virtually no potential for vagrancy; consequently, none can reasonably be considered potential additions to the Minnesota list.
Well, not unless one of them is introduced and eventually becomes established. Now wouldn't that be something: scaling the slopes of abandoned mines on the Iron Range in search of snowcocks! (Oops. Now I've done it. Probably incurred the wrath of someone from the Himalayas or Hibbing....soon to be on the internet, grousing.)