Birds of Nakusp/by Gary Davidson
There are four members of the grouse family occurring regularly in our region. The one most often seen is the Ruffed Grouse. We see this species more than the others, not because it is the most numerous, but because it prefers the lower elevations and the valley bottoms. The males of all grouse species have their own technique for attracting females. The Ruffed Grouse selects a small woodland opening and flaps its wings rapidly against its chest. Starting slowly, it accelerates the wing flapping gradually until it reaches a rapid vibration. Some have described the sound produced as that of a distant motor gradually firing up in the forest.
Another of our local grouse is the Spruce Grouse, sometimes called ‘fool hen.’ This unflattering name is a result of the bird’s reluctance to leave when approached by humans. This behaviour is particularly noticeable when the bird is a female with young nearby. Spruce Grouse rarely venture down to the valley bottom, preferring the mountain slopes from about 1000 metres up to the sub-alpine zone. Male Spruce Grouse take a different approach to the issue of attracting mates. By rapidly beating their wings they rise vertically into the air before falling back to the ground. On the descent, they clap their wings together above their backs just as they arrive at the ground. The noise produced sounds just like someone clapping two boards together.
The third species is the Dusky Grouse, (formerly called Blue Grouse). This species displays the greatest tolerance for a variety of elevations and habitats. I have seen Dusky Grouse from valley bottom to alpine. Males of this species take a slightly more sedate approach to courting. There is no violent wing flapping or fluttering about. Dusky Grouse displays consist mostly of strutting and parading in front of perspective mates. They inflate large colourful air sacs in their neck and make a series of low pitched hoots and grunts.
The fourth local member of this family is the White-tailed Ptarmigan. This species has very specific habitat requirements, and it is this that makes them the hardest to find. Ptarmigan are birds of the rocky, alpine meadows. While they may venture downslope a little in the winter, they very rarely venture far from their alpine breeding grounds. Unlike their forest dwelling relatives, ptarmigan have nowhere to hide when predators pass by. They rely instead, on camouflage. In summer a motionless ptarmigan would look just like any of the rocks scattered in the meadows. In late fall, they begin a moult that gradually replaces all their brown-grey feathers with pure white ones. So after spending their summers mimicking the rocks, they now blend invisibly into the snowy terrain.
Grouse species do not fare well when the spring and early summer is cold and wet – as it has been this year. Broods of young tend to be much smaller. I have seen ten separate broods this year and with one exception, all the broods have been five or less.