Spruce grouse (Dendragapus canadensis)

Also known as: American spruce grouse, Canada grouse, fool hen, Franklin’s grouse, spruce partridge
Synonyms: Canachites canadensis, Falcipennis canadensis, Tetrao canadensis
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderGalliformes
FamilyPhasianidae
GenusDendragapus (1)
SizeLength: 38 - 43 cm (2)
Wingspan: 57 cm (3)
Male weight: 550 - 650 g (2)
Female weight: 450 - 550 g (2)

The spruce grouse is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The spruce grouse (Dendragapus canadensis) is a dark, stocky bird of coniferous forests in the northern United States and Canada (2) (3) (4) (5). The male spruce grouse is mainly dark grey above, with blackish barring, and black below, with white spots on the breast and belly. The tail is short and dark, sometimes with white spots or with a broad reddish-brown tip. There is a white border to the otherwise black throat, and white arcs beneath the eyes (2) (3) (4).

The female spruce grouse is paler than the male and is superbly camouflaged against the forest floor, being largely brownish to grey with extensive brown and white barring. Immature birds resemble the adult female, but may have white or buffy tips to some of the feathers, giving a paler appearance (2) (3) (4). Both the adult male and female spruce grouse have a blackish or reddish-brown beak and a scarlet area above the eye, known as the ‘superciliary comb’, which becomes a conspicuous bright red in the male during courtship (2) (4).

Up to six subspecies of spruce grouse have been recognised (2), but most scientists divide it into two subspecies, Dendragapus canadensis canadensis and Dendragapus canadensis franklinii (Franklin’s grouse) (3) (4). These differ mainly in the patterning on the tail, with D. c. canadensis having a reddish-brown tail tip and D. c. franklinii having an all-black tail with white spots above (3) (4). The spruce grouse can be distinguished from the dusky grouse (Dendragapus obscurus) by its smaller size, as well as by the heavily barred rather than plain grey underparts of the female, and the lack of an inflatable vocal sac in the male (2) (4).

Although reported to be among the most silent of the grouse species (4), the spruce grouse produces a variety of calls, including hisses, purrs and hums (3). The female D. c. franklinii also produces a territorial “song” consisting of a long series of complex notes. In addition, the male spruce grouse uses a range of non-vocal sounds, including a soft ‘drumming’ and a loud wing-clap, which is produced only in the subspecies D. c. franklinii (3) (4).

The spruce grouse is found in Canada and parts of the northern United States, from Alaska to Labrador, and south into New England and the northern states of the western U.S. (2) (3) (4) (6). This species has also been introduced onto the island of Newfoundland (2) (4).

While the subspecies D. c. franklinii occurs in the south-western parts of the species’ range, D. c. canadensis occurs in the north and east (3) (4) (6). Although largely resident within its range, some spruce grouse move short distances each year between separate breeding and wintering grounds (2) (4) (5).

This species is strongly associated with boreal conifer forests. In addition to spruce (Picea) forest, the spruce grouse is also commonly found in forests dominated by pine (Pinus) or fir (Abies) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). In autumn and winter it also sometimes occurs in deciduous forest (4) (5) (6).

The spruce grouse appears to prefer relatively young, dense forest with a well-developed middle storey (2) (4) (6), and it is also often found in areas with a rich understorey of blueberries (Vaccinium) and other low shrubs (2) (5). This species occurs at elevations from sea level to over 3,600 metres (6).

During winter, the diet of the spruce grouse consists almost entirely of pine or spruce needles. At other times of year, it also feeds on the shoots, leaves, flowers and berries of other plants, as well as on some fungi, insects and snails (2) (3) (4) (5). Young chicks eat mostly insects, although fungi may also be important in their diet (2) (4).

The spruce grouse forages during the day, with peaks of feeding in the early morning and late afternoon (2) (4). In summer, this species mainly forages alone and on the ground, but in winter it may gather in loose flocks of up to 30 birds, and forages almost entirely in the trees (3) (4) (5).

Both the male and female spruce grouse defend individual territories (5). The male spruce grouse may perform territorial displays which include fanning and sweeping the tail, or drumming or clapping the wings (3) (5). Males also perform elaborate courtship displays to attract a mate (4) (5), and each male may mate with several females (2) (4) (5).

Breeding usually takes place around May or June (2) (4). The nest consists of a simple depression in the ground, lined with dead needles, leaves and feathers, and concealed by overhead vegetation. It is built by the female spruce grouse, typically at the base of a pine or spruce tree (2) (3) (4) (5). Clutch size is between 4 and 7 eggs (2) (3), and the eggs are incubated by the female for 23 to 24 days (2). Females of the subspecies D. c. canadensis usually lay more eggs than those of D. c. franklinii (4) (5).

The young spruce grouse chicks are reddish-brown above and yellowish below (2) (4), and are able to leave the nest and follow the female shortly after hatching (3) (5). The young can make short flights from just 6 to 8 days old (2) (5), and become independent at around 9 to 15 weeks (4) (5). The spruce grouse may start to breed in its first year following hatching, and has been recorded living to at least 13 years old (2) (4).

The spruce grouse is a widespread and fairly common species, and is not currently considered at risk of extinction (7). However, it has been lost from some parts of its former range, particularly in southern areas, mainly due to the logging of conifer forest (2) (4) (5) (6).

This species benefits from forests that have a patchwork of different stages of regeneration due to fires. Changes in forest structure, for example due to logging or fire suppression, can lead to population declines (3) (4) (6). Small-scale cutting can sometimes mimic fire patterns, but this only benefits the spruce grouse if the clear-cut areas are small and are interspersed with suitable habitat (2) (3) (4).

Although the spruce grouse is commonly hunted, it is not a major game species. The impacts of hunting on the overall spruce grouse population are thought to be low (2) (6).

The spruce grouse is partially protected throughout its range, and some hunting regulations are in place (6).

Surprisingly little is known about the spruce grouse over large parts of its range, and it would therefore benefit from further research into its populations, life history and habitat requirements. In particular, more information is needed on the effects of habitat alterations on this species, to help inform appropriate habitat management measures (6).

Find out more about the spruce grouse and its conservation:

More information on grouse conservation:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 2: New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Spruce grouse (June, 2011)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Spruce_Grouse/id
  4. Boag, D.A. and Schroeder, M.A. (1992) Spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/005/
  5. Kaufman, K. (2001) Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
  6. Storch, I. (2007) Grouse: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan 2006 - 2010. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and World Pheasant Association, Fordingbridge, UK. Available at:
    http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/2007-034.pdf
  7. BirdLife International (June, 2011)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=288