HAPPENINGS - October 2002
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 birds stomach.
winter may seem harsh at 10,000 feet, the blue grouse doesnt
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.
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.