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Blane Klemek: It lives in Minnesota, but I have yet to see the elusive spruce grouse

Long ago, the other three species were checked off on my species list: ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, and greater prairie chicken.

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A spruce grouse in northern Minnesota.
Flickr photo by Jean Barrell
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One of these days, I hope, I will observe with my own two eyes the fourth and final native species of Minnesota grouse.

Long ago, the other three species were checked off on my species list: ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, and greater prairie chicken. I can also add another North American grouse species to the list that doesn’t occur in Minnesota — the dusky grouse, which is a western grouse of the Rocky Mountains and elsewhere in the West.

Despite my numerous adventures throughout northern Minnesota’s boreal forests where spruce grouse inhabit, yours truly, at least to my knowledge, hasn’t crossed paths with this interesting and beautiful wild bird.
Spruce grouse are grouse of primarily spruce, lowland conifer, and jack pine forests across the United States’ northernmost tier and throughout Canada and Alaska. Two races exist — the Franklin’s and Taiga.

Minnesota’s spruce grouse, belonging to the Taiga race, are locally common throughout the expansive Beltrami Island State Forest, Red Lake Wildlife Management Area, and northeast Minnesota.

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A colorful spruce grouse in Minnesota.
DNR photo courtesy of Beau Liddell

The docile-behaving spruce grouse, which often tolerates close encounters with people, is sometimes called “fool’s hen” or “fool’s grouse.” It’s not that spruce grouse are uniquely less intelligent than other grouse, it’s just that spruce grouse are wired differently.

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A dark-colored bird with white bands across its breast and a colorful head 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 adorns 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 inches and a wingspan of 22 inches, spruce grouse are only slightly smaller than ruffed grouse.
The tails, feet, and wings of all grouse species are used to some extent during courtship rituals. 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 tail feathers, they sweep their tails from side to side as they step ever so slowly in a wobbly-like movement and appearance.

As he displays, generally in front of a hopeful mate, his fanned-out tail feathers make raspy sounding noises. These sounds are made possible because each tail feather has small protrusions that catch the feather beneath, thus producing the strange swish-sound.

Another sound produced that can be heard and seen is when he suddenly spreads out his tail feathers, much like someone quickly snapping open a hand-held fan. Like peacocks and wild turkeys, this rapid fanning motion makes a whooshing sound.

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A male spruce grouse in the Griffin Creek area Tally Lake Ranger District in Kalispell, Montana, in 2018.
Photo by Erika Williams, U.S. Forest Service Northern Region

Another behavior and sound often produced by displaying male spruce grouse involves gliding from a tree limb anywhere from 10 to 20 feet above the ground, followed 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 producing two very loud wing “claps” just before settling to the ground. The sound of the wing-claps is very similar to gunshots.

As mentioned, one of the places in Minnesota where spruce grouse are abundant and fairly easy to find, are within the 325,000-acre Red Lake WMA. Located northwest of Waskish and southwest of Baudette in northwest Minnesota, this wildlife management area is replete with walking trails and narrow forest roads that wind through the wilderness. A very popular birding hotspot, Red Lake WMA is also a stop on the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail. If you make the trip, stop in at the WMA’s headquarters’ historic Norris Camp and visit DNR staff that manage the area and learn about possible spruce grouse viewing locations.

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That spruce grouse are found here in Minnesota is testament to our state’s amazing diversity. Few states can boast of having both forest dwelling and open landscape species of grouse, but we can.

From fields to forests, grouse of many a feather, including spruce grouse, are Minnesota native grouse as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Related Topics: NORTHLAND OUTDOORSBLANE KLEMEK
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