Chasing one of the two elusive mountain grouse (Dendragapus obscurus).
The dusky grouse is a very striking bird with beautiful plumage, although it looks very similar to another grouse species. Until 2006, the dusky grouse and sooty grouse were both called the blue grouse, but they are now recognized as two separate species (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife 2018). The dusky grouse primarily occupies the drier, interior (eastern) side of our Western mountain ranges, while the sooty grouse usually occurs on the moist, coastal (western) side. Here is what you need to know about the dusky grouse.
Description and Life History of the Dusky Grouse
The dusky grouse is a large forest grouse species, larger than the ruffed grouse, weighing approximately 2 to 3 pounds on average. The females are mottled brown or gray with black barring. They have a moderately long dark gray tail. Males are very different looking than females, with darker brown and black feathers. Their tail feathers are black with a light gray band across the tips. On the rear side of their tail fan, they also have light gray and white feathers. They have bright yellow eyebrows that turn reddish orange during the breeding season. But their most noticeable feature while displaying for females is a red neck patch. Males will raise the feathers on either side of their necks to reveal a bright red bare patch of skin, which is accented by white downy feathers around it.
Beginning in April to May, males establish a territory and call with a series of loud hooting noises on the ground to attract females (NatureServe 2018). Their calls may be heard up to 100 meters away (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife 2018). They may also flap their wings loudly and strut on the ground with their tails fanned and red skin patches on display (National Audubon Society 2018). After mating season ends, the males largely carry on with their solitary existence again. However, the females will scratch a depression into the ground and line it with conifer needles, twigs, leaves, and feathers. These nest sites are usually located under some form of cover, such as a fallen log or a rocky ledge. The female will usually lay 7 to 10 eggs and incubate them for 25 to 28 days (NatureServe 2018; National Audubon Society 2018). When the chicks hatch, they can follow their mother to feed within a day and can fly in just over a week.
Adult dusky grouse forage on the ground throughout the spring and summer, but transition to foraging in trees during the winter when deep snows block access to the ground. They primarily feed on leaves, flowers, buds, berries, and conifer needles in the summer, while the chicks primarily eat insects (National Audubon Society 2018). In the winter, however, they feed mostly on the buds and needles of Douglas and other firs, pines, and hemlocks (NatureServe 2018; National Audubon Society 2018).
While female dusky grouse will aggressively defend their young by hissing and flapping their wings, there are still some very effective natural predators. Raptors (e.g., bald and golden eagles, hawks, owls, etc.), martens, weasels, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, lynx, and even larger mammals may prey on the eggs, chicks, or adults throughout the year.
Range and Habitat of the Dusky Grouse
The dusky grouse is found throughout the western United States and Canada. They primarily occur in Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Oregon, and Washington, as well as most of British Columbia, Alberta, and the Yukon Territory.
Though they are considered a forest grouse species, they also spend a significant chunk of their life in montane areas and shrublands. Throughout the spring and summer, they forage and nest at lower elevations in grasslands, sagebrush flats, shrublands, and deciduous or coniferous forests (NatureServe 2018; National Audubon Society 2018). Healthy mixed forests, early successional forests, and edges of aspen forests may be important habitats during the nesting season. However, they seasonally migrate in winter to higher elevations where coniferous forests (e.g., spruce, fir, pine, etc.) are more prevalent. Douglas fir, subalpine fir, and lodgepole pine appear to be important tree species for winter survival.
Conservation Issues for the Dusky Grouse
The dusky grouse population appears to be relatively stable overall and is globally secure, yet it is difficult to gather accurate population estimates for such a remote bird (NatureServe 2018). The global breeding population is estimated to be approximately 3 million birds, split roughly in half between the United States (56 percent) and Canada (44 percent) (All About Birds 2018; BirdLife International 2016).
The dusky grouse may be somewhat threatened by climate change. Since this species makes seasonal altitudinal migrations, a warming climate could affect how far they have to migrate, which could stress the birds. Logging activities may reduce summer nesting habitat as well as high elevation, coniferous winter habitat in some areas. However, due to their remote nature and habitat preferences, hunting and human influence is unlikely to play a significant role in their mortality.
Hunting Opportunities for the Dusky Grouse
The dusky grouse is a tough bird to hunt, mostly because of the rough environments they choose to live in. But they can also be frustratingly hard to hunt because of their habits. If you like to hike in the mountains and want to try your luck at dusky grouse hunting, here are a few states where you can start your search.
|Colorado||September 1-November 19, variable units||9 birds|
|Idaho||August 30-January 31, variable units||12 birds|
|Montana||September 1-January 1||12 birds|
|Nevada||September 1-December 31||9 birds|
|Oregon||September 1-January 31||9 birds|
|Utah||September 1-December 31||12 birds|
|Washington||September 1-December 31||9 birds|
|Wyoming||September 1-November 30||9 birds|
Most dusky grouse hunting will take place at high elevations, so practice low oxygen hiking as much as you can before one of these hunts. As mentioned above, the males will typically move up into higher elevations sooner than females with their brood. Even hunting in the early season at lower elevations may produce more hens and young birds than larger males. The benefit of that scenario is that if you flush a dusky grouse on the ground, stand ready for a few more birds to flush from the brood, just in case.
More likely than not, they will usually flush downhill. Taking off downhill is easier for them and they can fly laterally into a treetop located downslope, given their preference for steep hills and altitudinal changes. So whenever you can, try to get above wherever you suspect the birds to be and keep yourself positioned for a shot downhill at all times. Also, south-facing slopes may concentrate the birds more than any other direction, so prioritize them when you’re crunched for time. Then again, if you are crunched for time, chasing this elusive mountain grouse may not be the best idea.
All About Birds. 2018. Dusky Grouse. Accessed at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Dusky_Grouse/lifehistory
BirdLife International. 2016. Dendragapus obscurus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed at: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22734690/0
National Audubon Society. 2018. Guide to North American Birds. Accessed at: http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/dusky-grouse
NatureServe. 2018. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life. Accessed at: http://explorer.natureserve.org
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2018. Species & Ecosystem Science. Grouse Ecology. Accessed at: https://wdfw.wa.gov/publications/01273
Last modified: January 14, 2020