Birds – Canada Grouse

(Dendragapus canadensis)


Length—14 to 15 inches.

Male—Upper parts ashy waved with black, gray, and grayish-brown. A few white streaks on shoulders; tail black, slightly rounded, and tipped with orange-brown; under parts black and white, the black throat divided from the black breast by a mottled black and white and ashy circular band; flanks pale brown, mottled or lined across with black; legs feathered to toes; bill black; a yellow or reddish comb over eye.

Female—Upper parts barred with black, gray, and buff, or pale rufous, the black predominating, except on grayish lower back; tail black, mottled and more narrowly tipped with orange brown than male’s; under parts tawny barred with black; sides mottled with black and tawny; below black, the feathers broadly tipped with white.

Range—From northern New England, New York, Michigan, and Minnesota, westward to Alaska, and north so far as trees grow.

Season—Permanent resident; not a migrant, although a rover.

Only along the northern boundary of the United States may one hope to meet this small, hardy grouse walking about with the nimble steps of a Bob White, over the mossy bogs, in groves of evergreens and thickets of hackmatack—everywhere its favorite haunt; but in Canada it becomes increasingly abundant, and the habitants and voyageurs who penetrate the dark, swampy forests far to the north know it with that degree of intimacy which—perhaps because it furnishes the most interesting stories, that are at once the admiration and the despair of city-bred ornithologists—is discredited by them as “unscientific.” There is a French Canadian, a native of the Laurentian Mountains, whose fleet ponies take many Americans to the Grand Discharge for the oua naniche fishing, who will lead his patrons to a nest beside a fallen log, show them the ” drumming trees ” where the cocks fly down and captivate their mates with a noise resembling distant thunder, point out a dusky figure in the sombre evergreens that no untrained eye could find as the buckboard rattles swiftly over the corduroy road, and at the camp-fire needs little persuasion to tell more about the Canada grouse than can be learned in the books.

Very early in spring the cocks begin to strut and give them-selves grand airs. At this season especially, although the birds are never shy, the male exposes himself before an admiring observer with amusing abandon. With tail well up, and contracted and expanded at each step until the quills rustle like silk; with drooped wings, head erect, the black and white breast feathers standing out in regular rows, and those in the back of the neck correspondingly depressed ; the combs over each eye enlarged at will and glowing red—a miniature impersonation of self-conceit struts through the forest, across one’s path, flies into a low limb to attract more attention to his handsome body, and has been known to alight on a man’s shoulder and thump his collar! Ordinarily he thumps any hard substance with his bill. Some-times, with plumage arranged as above described, he will sit with his breast almost touching the earth and make peculiar nodding, circular motions of the head. To drum, he chooses some favorite tree inclined away from the perpendicular, and, commencing at the base, flutters slowly upward, very rapidly beating his wings to make the rumbling noise. Then, having ascended fifteen or twenty feet, he glides quietly to the ground, struts, and repeats the noisy ascent. A good ” drumming tree,” well known to woods-men, often has its bark worn by the small thunderers. Apparently there are many more cocks than hens in every tamarack swamp.

Mr. Watson Bishop, of Nova Scotia, who succeeded in domesticating this grouse, tells many interesting fresh facts about it. A sitting hen, after scratching a depression in the ground, first lays three or four eggs before placing any nesting material in the cavity; then she has the absurd habit of picking up straws, leaves, etc., as she leaves the nest, and tossing them backward over her head, to land perhaps on the nest, or perhaps just in the opposite direction if she has faced about with head toward the eggs to secure some inviting material. When a quantity of litter has been collected, she will then sit on the eggs, reach out to gather it in and place it about her until the cradle is very deep and nicely bordered with grass and leaves. Jealousy, a ruling passion with hens at the nesting season, often leads them to steal one another’s eggs. One nest should properly contain about a dozen, more or less, the ground color buff or pale brown, the spots and speckles reddish brown or umber ; but so great is the variation of color and markings that some eggs have no markings at all, while others are beautifully and clearly decorated. It is possible to rub or wash off markings from many fresh-laid eggs. Laying commences about the first week of June ; incubation lasts seventeen days, and by the middle of July the precocious chicks are able to reach the low branches of the evergreens in their first flights and move about on them like the adults that would make expert tight-rope walkers. Tender terminal spruce buds, hackmatack needles, the berries of Solomon’s seal, pine needles and cones, and such fare give this grouse’s flesh a dark color and a bitter, resinous flavor that tempts only the hungriest woodsmen ; although in the berry season, when the birds leave the evergreens to feed on tender leaf buds and fruit, the rich reddish meat is much sought. An immense quantity of gravel is swallowed to aid digestion. Indians tell of following great packs of these grouse that furnished meat to a tribe for weeks ; but a bevy of five or six birds is the largest recorded by scientists.