Grouse Time Has Arrived

Forest grouse season opened yesterday across the State of Washington and here in Paradise. I was reminded of this by Kevin Clements – my Africa bird hunting partner-nut. His comment was something like, “Enjoy your family tuna fishing… I’m spending the weekend chasing blue and ruffed grouse off in the northeast corner of our fine state. Can’t think of a better way to celebrate Labor Day Weekend. You should probably write something about the re-separation of blue grouse into two species.” I had written about the separation that happened in ’06, but “re-separation?” Hmm.

At any rate, there seems to be a good number of birds in the woodlands and higher forests of Paradise. We generally hunt three species of forest grouse in our corner of the world. They are all galliformes, or “chicken-like” partridges.

Spruce grouse (aka “fool hens,” since they often sit tight even in the face of visible danger) are associated with lodgepole pines, from which they seldom wander too far. They are found all across northern North America, but we are at the southern edge of their range and limited habitat makes them our least common grouse. On average, spruce grouse, Falcipennis Canadensis, is the smallest of our grouse; weighing a bit over a pound and measuring some 17 inches from beak to tail.

Ruffed grouse also cross the continent, but range a bit farther south and are much more common here. Their preference for riparian areas (willows, cottonwoods, dogwood and so on) and nearby forests means that we have plenty of habitat and generally good numbers of ruffs. The ruffed, Bonasa umbellus, is only slightly larger than its spruce grouse cousin – length to 20 inches and weight to a pound and a half or so. This is the grouse which once-five-year-old daughter Tena called “a chicken dressed up like a turkey!”

This brings us to our “blue” grouse, Dendragapus obscurus. At 20 inches in length and weights up to nearly three pounds, this is our largest forest grouse. These birds range from the Yukon to New Mexico, and were among the first western birds recorded; in August of 1776, the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition, seeking a route from Santa Fe to the California colonies, developed a taste for these delicious wild chickens.

Blues have been my personal favorites since I was a pretty small kid. Uncle Ed took me out on his place up the Little Chumstick, north of Leavenworth, to meet his blue grouse. I learned very early why I’d been given Uncle Van’s old .22 Winchester, and how tasty those birds were.

Males have a bluish-gray plumage, and “combs” above their eyes which may change color from yellow to red when they become excited or disturbed. The females have a mottled-brown plumage, helping them blend in with their surroundings when hiding or on the nest (bettering the odds of survival in the face of danger).

Now, about that “re-separation.” In 2006 the American Ornithologists’ Union separated the blue grouse into two separate species. We now have the sooty grouse, Dendragapus fuliginosus, and the dusky grouse, Dendragapus obscurus – a split which is actually a return to the designation of the early 1900s when dusky and sooty grouse were thought distinct. The re-reclassification was justified on the basis of mitochondrial DNA research by Barrowclough (2004), and on early research by Brooks (1929), who described several differences.

The grouse are similar in size, and the differences are subtle, but identifiable. In mating display, the fleshy air-sac patches at the neck are reddish-purple in the dusky and yellow in the sooty.  The most useful mark in the field is found on their tails; the dusky has all dark tail feathers with occasional gray tips, while the sooty has a broad gray terminal band.

The sooty grouse is found in Washington and ranges down into California. The dusky grouse, also known as the “dusky blue grouse” or the “interior blue grouse” occupies the rest of what we have long called the range of the blue grouse. As it turns out, Washington is the only state where the ranges of the two species actually overlap and several observers – including Kevin – have noted patterns indicating hybrid birds.

Not all wildlife departments have bought into the species separation yet. Montana continues to use “blue grouse,” and Oregon calls them blue grouse (treating them equally for hunting), but locates the sooty through most of its forest grouse range, and the dusky in the northeast. Idaho hunting regs now refer only to the dusky grouse, as do those of Colorado. In Washington, we still hunt blue grouse, with an asterisk* to tell you that this includes sooty and dusky.

Learn more. Check out Cornell University’s The Grouse Group – nearly 100 international scientists and conservationists specialized in grouse – will introduce you to the 18 world recognized species at

I do love those dusky/sooty/blue grouse.


Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized