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Spruce Grouse

Scientific name: Falcipennis canadensis

spruce grouse
Photo by David Govtaski, USFWS.

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 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 (set of feathers that cover feathers beneath), 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.

The diet of the spruce grouse includes:

  • needles and buds from coniferous trees (e.g. spruce, jack pine, fir, larch) primarily during the winter
  • berries
  • seeds
  • mushrooms
  • leaves
  • insects
map showing the year-round range for the spruce grouse
Spruce grouse range map from Birds of the World,
maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Life History

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 (born at an advanced state) 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 their range. The southern edge of their 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.

Spruce grouse prefer early to mid-successional stage coniferous forests of primarily spruce, tamarack and balsam fir, especially with an understory of blueberries and other plants in the Ericaceae family, with scattered openings of a few hundred square feet. Low, wetland areas are preferred as well. Occupied forest stands are on average, approximately 44-49 years old with a substantial component of coniferous (mainly black spruce) trees and ericaceous shrubs. These habitats support a mosaic of dense shrub cover for foraging, nesting and shelter, interspersed with pockets of sedge and moss ground cover used for courtship and foraging. Live tree foliage in the 0.2-1.0 m range of the vertical strata is also an important habitat component, providing nest concealment and protection for broods.


In the late 1800s, 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.

Factors currently limiting spruce grouse populations in New York State include:

  • the distance between patches of suitable habitat and the absence of potential movement corridors between these patches
  • reduction in occupied habitat quality due to natural succession of lowland boreal plant communities
  • small population size.

Currently, the greatest threat to spruce grouse persistence in New York is the reduction in habitat quantity and quality due to coniferous forest maturation and the spatial distribution of remaining occupied sites and suitable habitat across the landscape.

Map of Spruce Grouse distribution across N America and NY

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 1970s, 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 DEC. 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.

Another factor that may influence spruce grouse distribution is climate change. It is difficult to predict the extent rising temperatures will have on their populations, but shorter winters and reduced snow cover may have an impact on their lowland boreal habitat.

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 noted in the Spruce Grouse Recovery Plan (PDF) include:

  • protection of currently occupied sites
  • education of the general public and hunters to the status, recognition, and concern for spruce grouse
  • development of management plans to enhance and increase spruce grouse habitat
  • consider experimental releases of spruce grouse into suitable but unoccupied habitats

The overall goal of the Spruce Grouse Recovery Program is to achieve, protect, and maintain self-sustaining populations of the spruce grouse and its essential habitat in New York State, enabling the eventual removal of the species from the New York State endangered species list. The spruce grouse is an historic resident and represents an important and visible animal component of the boreal forest community. Conservation of the spruce grouse and the boreal community in which it thrives is important to conserving New York's biodiversity and unique character.

The purpose of this recovery plan is to:

  • provide background information on life history, habitat characteristics, and population status of the spruce grouse; and
  • make management recommendations that will promote the persistence of viable populations of spruce grouse in New York.

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