Birds – Dusky Grouse

(Dendragapus obscurus)


Length—20 to 24 inches; length variable.

Male—Upper parts blackish brown, finely zigzagged with slatey gray mixed with lighter brown, and sometimes coarsely mottled with gray, especially on wings; forehead dull reddish brown; back of head blackish, the feathers tipped with rusty; sides of head black; shoulders streaked with white; long feathers on sides have white ends and shaft stripes; throat white, finely speckled with black; under parts bluish gray or slate, varied with white on flanks and underneath. Tail rounded, the twenty broad feathers blackish-brown, marbled with gray, and broadly banded across end with slate gray; legs covered to toes with pale brown feathers; a comb over eye; bill horn color.

Female—Smaller, lighter, more mottled, or blotched with blackish and tawny or buff, the feathers generally edged with white; slate gray under parts, and tail broadly banded with same; the flanks tipped with white and mottled with black and buff.

Range—Rocky and other mountain ranges in western United States.

Season—Permanent resident.

Two variations of the dusky grouse, known as Richardson’s grouse and the sooty grouse—constantly confused in reports

make it somewhat difficult to define the exact habitat of this splendid game bird, so well known in one form or another by sportsmen throughout the western half of the United States, from New Mexico to Alaska and British Columbia. The habits of all three birds being practically the same, their plumage differing chiefly in degrees of duskiness, and their boundary lines constantly overlapping, it is small wonder the untrained observer confuses both their names and ranges. The Rocky Mountains, from central Montana and southeastern Idaho to New Mexico and Arizona, eastward to the Black Hills, South Dakota, and westward to East Humboldt Mountains, Nevada, is the range set down for the dusky grouse by the A. O. U., and a more westerly district, including California, for the sooty grouse; while Richard-son’s bird confines itself chiefly to the eastern slope of the Rockies. The latter is to be distinguished by its rather longer, square tail, with broader feathers, only slightly banded with gray, if at all, and its blacker throat. The sooty grouse, even darker still, and with a broad band on its tail, is minutely freckled with gray and rusty on its upper parts and very dark lead color below; the hen being particularly richly marked with rusty red and chest-nut brown.

Taking the place in the western sportsman’s heart of the ruffed grouse cherished in New England and the middle states, the dusky grouse, very like it in some habits and tastes, is a much larger bird, covered with a dense suit of feathers to resist the extreme cold of high altitudes, and weighing between three and four pounds. Next to the sage cock, this is the largest grouse in the United States. Possibly because it is so cumbrous, but more likely because its haunts are far removed from men, keeping it in ignorance, far from blissful, of his passion for hunting birds, this long-suffering recluse appears stupid to many. “Until almost fully grown,” says a Colorado observer, “they are very foolish; flushed, they will tree at once, in the silly belief that they are out of danger, and will quietly suffer them-selves to be pelted with clubs and stones until they are struck down one after another. With a shot gun, of course, the whole covey is bagged without much trouble; and as they are, in my opinion, the most delicious of all grouse for the table, they are gathered up unsparingly.” When carnage like this masquerades under the title of ” sport,” evidently the extinction of the blue grouse, like that of many another choice game bird, is imminent. From an altitude of about seven thousand feet to timber line, coming down to the side hills and lower gulches, where food is more abundant for young broods in summer, the dusky grouse usually haunts rough slopes covered with dense forests of spruce and pine, and neither migrates nor strays far from its birthplace, though constantly roving. Solitary for part of the year, or found in small parties of three or four adults at most, it is chiefly while the young are partly dependent on the mother—for the male is an indifferent father—that one meets a covey of from seven to ten feeding on bearberries, raspberries, and other wild fruits, insects, especially grasshoppers, tender leaves, and leaf buds, reserving the buds of the pine and the scales or seeds of its cones for winter fare, when nearly all other food is buried under snow. Heavy snowfalls send the grouse to roost in the evergreens, their dusky plumage, that blends perfectly with the sombre coloring of the pines as they squat on the limbs, making them all but invisible. Only early in the summer, when the young are unable to fly into the branches, do these tree-loving mountaineers roost on the ground. Approach a covey suddenly, and the beautiful, downy, nimble-footed chicks, that are by no means fools, scatter and hide among the bushes and under leaves, while the mother, flying in an opposite direction, alights in a tree, quite as if she had no family to be looked for; so why waste time in the search when she is in evidence? Moving her head from side to side, and looking at the disturber of her peace with first one eye, then the other, she will remain squatting on the limb just overhead with apparent apathy, or what passes for stupidity, but what may be the most intelligent self-sacrifice for her brood. Molest her, and she flies away very rapidly with a loud cackle of alarm. It is she that forms a depression in the ground, near an old log, in the underbrush, or in the stubble of an open field just as likely, but never far from water, after pressing down some fine grass, pine needles, or leaves to line the rude cradle. A clutch consists of from eight to ten creamy, buff eggs, dotted, spotted, and some-times blotched with brown. Confining herself very closely for three weeks or longer, she at length leads forth a brood in June to call it by clucks and otherwise care for it precisely as the domestic hen looks after her chicks. The nesting begins about the middle of May, though dates differ with the severity of the season and the altitude. Only one brood is raised in a year.

While there is anything like work connected with raising a young family the father absents himself, to rejoin it only when the covey has agreeable society to offer and makes no demands. Yet this is the cock that in the mating season gave himself the airs of a turkey gobbler as he strutted along the mountain road in front of your wagon, tail spread to its fullest, wings dropped until they trailed over the ground—a picture of self-importance. This is the season when he woos his mate with booming thunder on a small scale, which passes for a love song. A small sac of loose, orange-colored skin, surrounded by a white frill of feathers edged with dusky, at either side of the neck, may now be inflated at will ; and as the air escapes, a strange grumbling, groaning sound comes forth, seemingly from quite a distance, when perhaps very near, or, at least, from just the direction that it seems not to come from. This sound, that has been aptly likened to the distant laboring of a “small mountain sawmill wrestling in agony with some cross-grained log,” may be uttered from a stump or rock, or in the air as the cock flies about from limb to limb of the evergreens. When disturbed, he has the habit of erecting the feathers on the back of his neck, a feeble showing as compared with the imposing black frill of the ruffed grouse.