by Alex Forsythe
It's that time of year when we think of pumpkin pie and roast turkey with all the trimmings. However, I thought it would be too predictable to feature a turkey for November's Bird of the Month article. Instead, I'm going to share another game bird with you: Dusky Grouse.
I visited Glacier National Park with my non-birding family over the summer. I was hoping to get a glance at some lifers while the rest of the family admired the other natural wonders. With all of the smoke from the wild fires, birding was not only difficult, it was very uncomfortable. Even in the car it was hard to breathe and my eyes would not stop watering. As we drove through the mountains, I spotted what appeared to be the outline of a bird in the thick, gray smoke next to the road. I yelled for my father to stop, and I jogged back to the spot where I had seen the bird. There it was - a Dusky Grouse pecking at the gravel alongside the road! Someone had dropped some Fritos and the Dusky was in the mood for an unhealthy snack.
As I approached the bird, she didn't seem to be afraid at all. She was meticulously picking up every crumb, oblivious to my presence. When the crumbs were gone she looked toward me, hoping for more goodies I suppose. I didn't give her any, of course, but I did manage to get a few good photos of her before she scuttled away.
It probably should come as no surprise that the Dusky was so brave. These birds are fearless from the beginning of their lives. They leave the nest within 24 hours of hatching, and the females will defend her brood fearlessly (the males take no part in rearing the young). In winter when most animals seek lower elevations, the Dusky chooses to stay in the higher elevations, feeding on conifer needles.
The Dusky Grouse was once known as a subspecies of Blue Grouse along with the Sooty Grouse. DNA evidence indicates that the Dusky is a different but related species. The Dusky is one of the largest grouse species, and these birds are unusual in one regard: they have an unpredictable number of tail feathers. Most bird species have a fixed number of tail feathers, typically ten or so. The Dusky can have anywhere from 15 to 22!
Since they are ground dwellers that nest and forage on the ground, it was believed that they would fly only short distances at a time. However, recent studies show that they can fly about 5 km, allowing them to more easily colonize isolated areas of mountain ranges (Kienholz, Western Birds, 44:76-77, 2013).
Their numbers are fairly steady, so if you have the chance to travel out west, you're likely to see one of these birds if you visit their habitats. However, before you grab your camera, you might want to take a lesson from Don Jones: wear a helmet!