ST. PAUL -- Spruce grouse hunters in northern Minnesota’s boreal forests can help with a genetics research project being conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in partnership with the University of Minnesota.

It’s the second year of the study, which wants hunters to turn in feathers from grouse they shoot. Last season, 111 individual samples were submitted and the DNR is hoping for more this season.

“Hunters who enjoy pursuing these birds are critical to the success of this project and our work to conserve this species,” said Charlotte Roy, DNR grouse research scientist. “Data collection for this project is simple and we hope to receive another 100-150 samples in this final year of the two-year project.”

Spruce grouse are a climate-sensitive species that rely on boreal forest habitats containing black spruce, jack pine and tamarack — all of which are expected to shift northward as temperatures increase.

With fewer of those key trees in northern Minnesota, scientists suspect that will mean fewer spruce grouse. The study will look to see where the grouse are still prevalent and whether they are genetically very similar across their range or isolated. If the genetics are similar, then scientists know the grouse are mixing well across the region. But if the genetics are unique and different, then the birds already are becoming isolated in pockets of habitat that are not connected. That’s already happening with sharptail grouse in Minnesota as their habitat declines.

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Spruce grouse have declined so much in Michigan and Wisconsin that hunting them is no longer allowed there, and the birds are on those states’ lists of protected species. Oregon, too, stopped hunting them 45 years ago due to population concerns.

A male spruce grouse perched in a balsam tree. The Minnesota DNR is asking hunters to mail in tail feathers from spruce grouse shot this fall for a genetics study. 
Contributed / Beau Liddell / Minnesota DNR
A male spruce grouse perched in a balsam tree. The Minnesota DNR is asking hunters to mail in tail feathers from spruce grouse shot this fall for a genetics study. Contributed / Beau Liddell / Minnesota DNR

No one really knows how many spruce grouse remain in Minnesota. But Minnesota hunters do shoot thousands of spruce grouse each fall — somewhere between 7,000 and 20,000 annually over the past decade, according to hunter surveys.

What is pretty clear is that the bird’s range in Minnesota appears to be moving north. When once spruce grouse were found well south of Duluth, most now are found closer to the Canadian border.

Hunters who would like to assist with the project should collect three to five large wing or tail feathers along with the GPS coordinates of the harvest location. Don’t worry about revealing your favorite spot; harvest locations will not be made public. Hunters are asked to mail samples from each bird in a separate envelope and not mix feather samples from multiple birds.

This research project is funded by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources with dollars from the Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund that gets money from the state’s lottery profits.

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How to help

To participate in the spruce grouse genetics study, use one envelope for each bird and send feathers to: Grouse Research, DNR Regional Headquarters, 1201 East Highway 2, Grand Rapids, MN 55744. Include your name, contact information, harvest date and harvest location, preferably with GPS coordinates. For more information, email Charlotte Roy at charlotte.roy@state.mn.us.

A male spruce grouse stands alert. 
Contributed / U. Fish and Wildlife Service
A male spruce grouse stands alert. Contributed / U. Fish and Wildlife Service

About spruce grouse

  • Falcipennis canadensis.
  • Size: 16-19 inches long, just over 1 pound — similar in size and shape to the ruffed grouse.
  • •Coloration: Black and brown banded with white. Darker than ruffed grouse; head is a colorful mix of red, yellow and white, especially during the spring mating season.
  • Sounds: Both sexes make a soft clucking sound. Females make a territorial cantus call in spring that attracts males to display.
  • Nesting: Spruce grouse mate in April or May. Hens lay up to 12 eggs on the ground that hatch in 24 days. Chicks can fly in two weeks but stay with their mother for about three months.
  • Food: Spruce needles and buds. Young birds eat mainly insects in summer.
  • Winter survival: Prefers to roost nightly in deep snow but will settle for thick conifers.
  • Predators: Great horned owls, goshawks, martens, fishers and foxes. Some hunters pursue them but most spruce grouse are taken incidentally by ruffed grouse hunters.
  • Nicknames: Spruce hen, fool's hen, fool's grouse because they often are not wary of people. But researchers say that's not because they are stupid; they just live in dense evergreen forests and don't get attacked by predators very often.

Source: Minnesota DNR