British Columbia's Bountiful Blue Grouse<

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with Barry M. Thornton

Have you ever wondered why, in the spring or early summer, you have had that tooth vibrating experience while walking in the woods: why your teeth seem almost to vibrate from some deep outdoor resonating sound? It is highly likely that you have been walking near a calling stump, a 'hooting log' of one of British Columbia's legendary upland game birds, the blue grouse. During the spring the male blue grouse selects a 'hooting' location, usually a stump, log or tree, from which they will call the females. The call has been referred to as a "ventriloquistic courtship call," and can be heard for miles when conditions are right. Anyone who has been in the vicinity during this period can recall, yes, even feel the vibrations of this deep low resonant sound of the cock bird. 'Hens' will respond to the 'Hooters' and, following mating, they will search out an open meadow (open slash) site where they will brood their clutch of eggs for about one month. The young are precocial, that is, they are able to run around shortly after hatching and will scratch and feed themselves as they follow the hen.

British Columbia has two major species of blue grouse, COASTAL & INTERIOR (Bendell and Zwickel 1984), which are classified into eight subspecies, three of which inhabit B.C. Blue Grouse are a species of grouse which inhabit forested areas of the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coastal Ranges as far south as California and Colorado and as far north as the Yukon. B.C. however, has well over 50% of the world's population of blue grouse. They can be found in all areas of the province except the far north-east, the northern Chilcotin-Cariboo, and most of the Boreal Forest. The greatest abundance appears to be on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Blue grouse are cyclical so the total number in the province is estimated to vary between 500,000 and 1,500,000 birds annually.

Blue grouse tend to have large clutch numbers of eggs, up to fifteen, although 6 to 10 is the average. Hatching success is high most years, up to 90%. But, of those which hatch, mortality is usually 50% prior to the fall hunting season. This mortality is usually caused by cold, wet weather just after hatching, insufficient food, and predators. How often have you heard upland game bird hunters and wildlife biologists discuss the "Wet spring," or the "Wet June," when they meet and talk about this challenging and exciting upland game bird! They know that the inclement weather at that time of the year will dictate their overall hunting success in the Fall.

For many years the blue grouse had the misnomer of "FOOL-HEN," a disparaging name which in truth belongs to a cousin, the spruce grouse, another native of the B.C. forests. However, that is not to say that the name does not fit at times. Often a flushed blue grouse will land on an evergreen bough and simply freeze, even though you may be able to walk within a few feet of where they perch on a branch.

The blue grouse has an unique migration habit, they are vertical migrators who in recent years have, in those areas where there is intensive logging, reversed their historic migration pattern. In those mountains where logging has cleared vast tracks of forests, blue grouse nest in the cleared slash areas and in winter migrate uphill to the uncut remaining evergreen forests. Historically they migrated downhill from open mountain slopes and meadows.

For most of the year blue grouse live in coniferous forests feeding exclusively on evergreen needles. In July the cock birds will migrate from the breeding location, usually uphill if it is an open slash area. Recently it has been noted that logging practice are now often above the 1000 meter level and hooters have been found to migrate downhill to new second growth forested areas. Because of this early summer migration, the mature male population in the hunter harvest is very low, comprising less than 6% of the total harvest. The hen with her brood remain in open areas feeding on berries and plants until early in September. At that time, usually following an intense late summer storm, leading her brood, she will begin a slow migration towards a heavily forested area. The movement of one group often triggers other family groups who will join with the first creating an immense flock of migrating birds. The migration may take a few days depending on a number of factors, including weather, distance and food. Should you chance upon these migrating flocks it will be one of nature's sights and experiences that you will never forget. Grouse will be everywhere, on the ground, in the trees and shrubs, and in every direction wherever you look. Once they reach the evergreen forests blue grouse change their diet from the succulent tips of plants and berries to evergreen needles.

Blue grouse food is so variable that it cannot be used as a locator should you wish to find flocks of these chicken sized birds. However, as grouse are gallinaceous, 'scratching birds' their crops require grit, the small gravel they use for their crops to grind food. The profusion of gravel roads throughout the province are a great attraction for grouse and makes these prime areas to locate birds. A slow drive along most British Columbia mountain roads is a quick way to locate blue grouse. On occasion coveys of hooters can be seen in special habitat. These much larger birds are usually found on steep slopes or rocky bluffs having panoramic views overlooking mountain valley areas.

Liberal game bags and a lengthy hunting season are a B.C. tradition for this province wide upland game bird species. "Hunting mortality tends to replace other mortality and is not additive." This statement from the Ministry of Environment, the managers of blue grouse, summarizes the reasons for these liberal limits and lengthy seasons. In discussions I have had with Dr. Zwickel, he indicated that hunters harvest only about 4% of blue grouse populations and are not a factor in their population.

Blue grouse are birds of the high and mid mountain areas. It is while I am hiking on these mountain ridges, following the steep grassy slopes or cleared slash areas, and, marvelling at the vista in front of me, that I truly appreciate this special British Columbia mountain legend, the blue grouse.

"The End"

© Copyright Barry M. Thornton

Barry M. Thornton

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British Columbia's Bountiful Blue Grouse<