You might say that, among upland birds, spruce grouse are a lot like Rodney Dangerfield, the comedian who never got any respect.
Often referred to as “fool hens” because of their uncanny refusal to fly even when approached by people, and often disdained as table fare because their meat can taste like pine needles, spruce grouse aren’t high on the list of bird hunting trophies.
It’s not even clear how many spruce grouse we have in Minnesota, one of the last bastions for the bird in the continental U.S., nor do we know for sure if their numbers are going up, down or staying the same.
But a new study by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the University of Minnesota Raptor Center aims to change that. The study will use spruce grouse tail feathers to track genetics and see if Minnesota is home to a broad, connected and robust population of spruce grouse or — as some of their fans fear — the birds are hanging on in pockets of disassociated groups only where suitable habitat remains.
And the DNR needs your help. When hunters head into the woods starting Sept. 19, those who bag a spruce grouse are asked to pluck four or five tail feathers out, mark down the bird’s GPS location (don’t worry, the locations will be kept private) and mail the feathers in. Each bird's feathers must be kept in a separate paper envelope, although multiple envelopes can be packaged and mailed together.
“We need lots of tail feathers from hunters in lots of areas to do this right,” said Charlotte Roy, who heads the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources grouse program.
Spruce grouse have declined so much in Michigan and Wisconsin that hunting them is no longer allowed there, and the birds are on those states’ lists of protected species. Oregon, too, stopped hunting them 45 years ago due to population concerns.
But Minnesota hunters do shoot thousands of spruce grouse each fall — somewhere between 7,000 and 20,000 annually over the past decade, according to hunter surveys. “That’s more than the sharptails harvested in Minnesota, every year except one. But you don’t hear hunters talking much about shooting spruce grouse,’’ Roy said.
“We count most birds when they flush or when they sing, and spruce grouse don’t do either of those, so we’ve never really had a good handle on their population.”
Until recently nobody seemed to know much about spruce grouse, other than that they seemed to be generally declining in Minnesota, especially on the southern edge of their range.
“Not too long ago we would get reports of spruce grouse even in the counties south of Duluth. But not any more,’’ Roy said. “There’s anecdotal evidence that their shift north has already started.”
A change in what trees are growing in the forest is likely the cause. As the name implies, spruce grouse are most often found in or near areas of thick conifer cover — especially black spruce but also jack pine, balsam fir and white cedar. In winter they eat mostly pine needles.
It’s widely believed this type of forest cover is diminishing in Minnesota due to past logging practices. And it’s believed black spruce and some other species may already be diminishing in Minnesota due to climate change.
Without connected habitat across the region, the future of the spruce grouse here is dim, and Roy said results of the study might help guide future timber management.
"But there are a lot of competing interests in timber management,'' she noted.
Audubon Society scientists have used computer models to simulate future conditions across spruce grouse range in North America. They found that warming temperatures under climate change could lead to an 84% reduction in spruce grouse habitat, pushing the birds out of the continental U.S. entirely and leaving suitable habitat only far north into Canada. (Other iconic far-northern Minnesota species, like lynx and moose, appear to share similar fates.)
An ongoing study that began in 2018 surveying spruce grouse droppings is helping better determine the bird's range and habitat in far northern Minnesota and, to some extent, their population trend. With just a few years of results — field crews from multiple tribal, state and federal agencies and volunteer citizen scientists are counting spruce grouse droppings each spring — the numbers so far seem steady.
“From what we can tell so far, with limited data, it looks like the population is stable or maybe decreasing a little,’’ Roy said.
“Part of the problem with spruce grouse is that their habitat is hard for people to get to. They thrive in very thick conifer cover and it’s mostly when people see them on a road or trail that they cross paths,’’ Roy added. “That’s why we’re doing the (droppings) survey. We felt we needed better data on where their population is going.”
How to help
To participate in the spruce grouse genetics study, use one envelope for each bird and send feathers to: Grouse Research, 1201 East Highway 2, Grand Rapids, MN, 55744. Include your name, contact information, harvest date and harvest location (GPS coordinates are preferred and will not be made public) for each bird. For more information email Charlotte Roy at email@example.com.
About spruce grouse
• Falcipennis canadensis
• Size: 16 to 19 inches long, just over one pound — similar in size and shape to the ruffed grouse.
• Coloration: Black and brown banded with white. Darker than ruffed grouse; head is a colorful mix of red, yellow and white, especially during the spring mating season.
• Sounds: Both sexes make a soft clucking sound. Females make a territorial cantus call in spring that attracts males to display.
• Nesting: Spruce grouse mate in April or May. Hens lay up to 12 eggs on the ground that hatch in 24 days. Chicks can fly in two weeks but stay with their mother for about three months.
• Food: Spruce needles and buds. Young birds eat mainly insects in summer.
• Winter survival: Prefers to roost nightly in deep snow but will settle for thick conifers.
• Predators: Great horned owls, goshawks, martens, fisher and foxes. Some hunters pursue them but most are taken incidentally by ruffed grouse hunters.
• Nickname: Spruce hen, fool's hen, fool's grouse because they often are not wary of people. But researchers say that's not because they are stupid; they just live in dense evergreen forests and don't get attacked by predators very often.
Source: Minnesota DNR