Upland Game Birds in West Valley Part III

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by Pat Jaquith


Dusky Grouse raiding a squirrel cache 11.04.15

NOW, we’ve finished with all the non-native game birds; in Part III we’ll cover the native Montana game birds. Read on for more about Dusky Grouse, Ruffed Grouse, and Spruce Grouse.

Dusky grouse have an interesting history regarding their name. Lewis & Clark found and named two species of similar-looking grouse when they were on their expedition in 1805-6. They called them the Sooty Grouse and the Dusky Grouse. Later on, the two were considered as one species and were called the Blue grouse. In 2006, DNA analysis revealed enough differences that determined they were, indeed two species, and the American Ornithological Society officially split the Blue Grouse into two: the Sooty Grouse, and the Dusky Grouse. I guess if someone from the Lewis and Clark expedition were still around, they could brag, “We told you so!!”

The Dusky Grouse is the one that we see around here, whereas the Sooty Grouse live much farther west, near the coast. The male Dusky shows a red air sac (apteria) surrounded by white feathers on its neck and yellow-orange eye combs when in breeding display. He has a solid black tail fan, occasionally with a light gray band. Their overall body feathers are brown and gray. They display on the ground, and the “hooting” sound they make to call in mates can be heard within 100 yards. If you are interested in learning more about the Sooty grouse, this is an excellent article. https://projectupland.com/grouse-species/blue-grouse-hunting/blue-grouse-2/

A friend and I came upon this handsome fellow while hiking in a local forest. We did not hear any of its ‘hooting.’ Using this log as he displays qualifies as being ‘on the ground.’

Dusky Grouse 3.05.21
Dusky Grouse (female) 8.20.15
Dusky Grouse (male) 4.08.20

I’ve seen Dusky Grouse in our valley year-round. In winter, they find secure hide-outs in dense forests, where they eat mostly conifer needles; in spring as buds swell, they add them into their diet. In summer, their diet includes insects, green plants, and berries. The young eat mostly insects for the first month or two. Note the feet on the grouse on snow: I’ve often observed those tracks in the snow with one long, forward toe and two shorter side toes.


Ruffed Grouse 9.20.22

Ruffed Grouse have been rather elusive for me. One of my first encounters with a Ruffed Grouse in the West Valley was in early spring, 2020. I was hiking through a forest near a seasonally wet area. An Orange-crowned Warbler sang its descending melody from willow and aspen shrubs; a Western tanager wooed its mate from farther away, and I heard the quack, quack of a Mallard; my trail I was decorated with the dangling curled-back yellow blossoms of Glacier lilies. A red squirrel began to scold – and then his volume increased far beyond anything a squirrel had ever produced in reaction to my visitation. Curious, but cautious, I advanced toward the noise one step at a time. Scolding, dancing, a red squirrel dashed up and down through the tangled, lichen-covered brittle branches of a small Douglas fir. Eventually I could see the source of its distress: A Ruffed Grouse was digging in a cache of Douglas fir cones. I took one step too many, and the grouse became a flurry of wings.

In March and April, I’ve spotted a Partridge looking like a small toy football lodged in the upper branches of Aspen trees. Partridges are up there busily harvesting the tender tips of branches and the male catkins. As Radd Icenoggle writes in Birds in Place, a Habitat-based Field Guide to Birds of the Northern Rockies, “The Ruffed Grouse prefers aspen stands that have nearby or adjacent conifer forest for cover.” Knowing their food preferences and habitat where they find them are key to finding them.

The Ruffed grouse pictured above was the last of six grouse just exiting a heavily wooded area bordering a wetland filled with wildflowers, grass, and Aspens. Fortunately, the five that preceded it gave me time to react with my camera as this one came out into the light!


I’ve never seen a Spruce Grouse here in West Valley, but they do live not far away. Their habitat is similar to that of Dusky Grouse, and many of their behaviors are similar. The male Spruce Grouse is smaller, has a black throat and breast patch, and their eye combs are distinctly scarlet. I’ve included them here so if you see one nearby, I hope you will let me know!

When I go out into the woods on my walks, I am armed with Bear Spray, and usually, a camera. If you are interested hunting in these game birds for other reasons, please remember to do your homework! The Fish, Wildlife, and Parks department website https://fwp.mt.gov/hunt/regulations/upland-game-bird is a great place to start.

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