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NATURE HAPPENINGS - October 2002

Mountain Kings
by Damian Fagan

Their intent is to startle and most times they are successful. As we walk through the aspens in October, our serenity is interrupted by a flurry of wings as a blue grouse explodes out of the understory. The birds wait until they are nearly underfoot, then burst forth and fly a short distance. Their effect is to create a momentary diversion, throw a predator off of their scent, and make their escape.

The blue grouse is the common, montane grouse of the Intermountain West. The genus name Dendragapus means “tree-loving” while the species name, obscurus, means “inconspicuous” - both define this bird of the aspen-fir forests. The inconspicuous label relates to the females mottled color and the solitary nature of the adult males. Blue grouse are also called “hooters” because of their owl-like calls.

A round-winged, chicken-like bird, the stocky blue grouse may be up to 17 inches tall. Both sexes have a long, squarish tail, tipped with gray. While the females are not colorful - better to be camouflaged on the nest - the males are also gray or sooty in color, but with an orange or yellowish colored “comb” of bare skin above their eyes. These “eyebrows” would have made Groucho Marx jealous.

Blue grouse do not congregate at strutting grounds or leks like their grassland or prairie-dwelling relatives. Males perform a solitary display (or with a couple of onlookers) by spreading its tail feathers into a wide fan. The male then spreads the feathers on the side of its neck exposing a purplish skin - birds in the Pacific region have a yellower patch of skin. With this “look at me” posture, the male rushes forward in a short dash. The performanceis accompanied by a series of loud hoots, aimed at attracting a mate.

For nests, blue grouse females use a shallow depression at the base of a tree or near a fallen log or rock. They line the nest with grasses, pine needles orleaves, and deposit around a dozen buff-colored eggs dotted with brown.The female does all the incubating, up to 26 days, and will raise her nestlings solo. Mortality can be high on the nestlings, with foxes, coyotes, owls or hawks preying on the young birds.

During the fall, blue grouse feed on available berries, flowers and leaves of plants, and insects. As snows start to cover the high country, their diets change to conifer needles and buds. Birds may be seen eating grit off of roadways which helps grind up seeds and plant material in the bird’s stomach.

Though winter may seem harsh at 10,000 feet, the blue grouse doesn’t migrate from this snowy landscape to balmy southern lands. Some elevational migration may take place as the birds move a bit downslope, but for the most part this bird is well adapted to its wintery domain.

But for the time being, as we continue along the trail toward Burro Pass in the La Sal Mountains, we keep a watchful eye out for these heart-stopping explosions of feathers. We envy these birds, as faded aspen leaves pirouette earthward, and their ability to dwell here at high up in the home of the mountain kings.

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