Spruce Grouse Fact Sheet
New York Status: Endangered
Federal Status: Not Listed
Spruce grouse are a smaller, darker cousin of the ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus). Nicknamed "fool hen" for its lack of fear of humans, spruce grouse allow humans to approach within a few feet before flying. They apparently depend on their protective coloration to conceal them. Measuring 15-17 inches (38-43 cm) in length, the male is black on the upper breast and throat, has a brown or blackish tail tipped with chestnut, white-tipped undertail coverts, a finely barred gray and black rump, and a crimson comb above each eye. The female is brown overall with black barring. She also has the chestnut terminal tailband. Feathering on both sexes extends to the base of the toes. This species feed mostly on needles and buds of spruce, jack pine, fir and larch, as well as berries, seed, mushrooms, leaves and some insects. In the winter months, however, the diet shifts to the foliage of coniferous trees only. This shift is accompanied by an increase in the size of the gastrointestinal tract to digest the foliage.
Males of this species are polygynous (mate with several females). Females defend their own nesting territories from other females and take on all of the parental duties. The male displays away from the nesting areas to females moving through his territory. His display consists of strutting, tail-spreading and periodic short flights with exaggerated wing beats. The females build a nest of twigs, grasses and leaves in a shallow depression beneath low hanging branches or beside a fallen tree. A clutch of four to seven eggs is incubated for 17-24 days. The young are precocial and fledge in only 10 days.
Distribution and Habitat
Spruce grouse range across northern North America in the area generally congruent with the coniferous boreal forests. The limit of trees at the edge of the tundra is the northern edge of the range. The southern edge of the range occurs where coniferous forests dip into the northern United States, in New England, New York, the northern Midwest and the Northwest. In New York, the population is concentrated where Franklin and St. Lawrence counties meet in the Adirondack Foothills.
Within this range, spruce grouse prefer early to mid-successional stage coniferous forests of primarily spruce and fir, especially with an understory of blueberries and other ericaceous plants, with scattered openings of a few hundred square feet. Low, wetland areas are preferred as well.
In the late 1800', this species was quite common in Herkimer, Hamilton and Franklin counties. Today, populations remaining in the Adirondack Mountains are fragmented and sparse. The reduction and fragmentation of spruce-fir forests in the Adirondacks (45 to 50 percent) due to historical logging and the maturation of remnant stands is probably most responsible for decline of this species. Accidental shooting of female spruce grouse by hunters also poses a threat to survival of small and disjunct populations. The ease with which this bird can be killed most likely had an impact on the population size. Development and settlement in previously unpopulated areas and flooding of large wetland areas to create lakes and reservoirs also played important roles, as did habitat loss due to selective logging of softwoods and interspecific competition with the ruffed grouse.
Researchers at the State University of New York - College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse, who have been monitoring spruce grouse populations since the mid 1970', estimate the state breeding population at 175-315 individuals. The precarious nature of populations within the Adirondacks has led to the formation in 1992 of the Spruce Grouse Recovery Team by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The goal of this team is to ensure the long term survival of viable populations of spruce grouse and their associated boreal forest community in New York.
Management and Research Needs
The Spruce Grouse Recovery Team has identified various management and research actions needed in order to protect, maintain and enhance spruce grouse populations and their habitat. Some examples include: (1) protection of currently occupied sites, (2) education of the general public and hunters to the status, recognition and concern for spruce grouse, (3) development of management plans to enhance and increase spruce grouse habitat and (4) consider experimental releases of spruce grouse into suitable but unoccupied habitats.
Bouta, R. P. and R. E. Chambers. 1989. Status of Threatened Spruce Grouse Populations in New York: A Historical Perspective. New York State Museum Bulletin 471.
Johnsgard, P. A. 1983. The Grouse of the World. Univ. of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE.
Peterson, J. M. C. 1988. Spruce Grouse, Dendragapus canadensis. Pages 126- 127 in R. F. Andrle and J. R. Carroll, Eds. The Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State. Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, NY.
Robinson, W. L. 1969. Habitat Selection by Spruce Grouse in Northern Michigan. Journal of Wildlife Management 33:113-120.
Robinson, W. L. 1980. Fool Hen: The Spruce Grouse on the Yellow Dog Plains. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI. 221pp.
Drawing by Cynthia J. Page