Spruce Grouse (Photos by Don Reimer)
Spruce Grouse (Photos by Don Reimer)
Two members of the Gallinaceous or “chicken-like” grouse family occur in Maine. Despite some color variations in feathering patterns, the Ruffed Grouse and Spruce Grouse share a general similarity in shape and appearance. Their contrasting behavioral differences are quite another matter. Both species occupy specialized habitats that meet their essential life needs.

Throughout the state, the more familiar Ruffed Grouse predominates. As a favorite Maine game bird, about a half-million of these grouse are harvested by hunters annually. The vast majority of Ruffed Grouse have a black tail band and a black ruff of feathers around the neck. Several color phases ranging from gray to red are seen, but the grayer forms are more common in northern latitudes. In fall, there are instances of collision mortalities, as grouse occasionally get a bit tipsy on fermented berries and fly with abandon into fixed objects. In winter, Ruffed Grouse often feed high off the ground, seeking out tree buds, fruits and berries. By September, special projections (pectinations) begin growing on the sides of the toes. These fleshy nubs, which fall off in spring, help grouse walk in snowshoe fashion across deep snow and provide extra grip on icy branches. Under severe winter cold or storm conditions, grouse burrow into insulating snowbanks at night.

Despite an occasionally tame or pokey-acting individual, Ruffed Grouse are vigilant birds that commonly flush and take flight when disturbed. Anyone who has experienced a woodland grouse exploding into flight beneath their feet knows of what I speak. In alternate manner, these grouse may perk up their head like a domestic chicken, extend their neck forward and scamper for protective cover.

An amazingly confiding species, the Spruce Grouse is a true boreal forest specialist. During Lewis and Clark’s 1804–06 Western expedition, Meriwether Lewis described the species as “gentle,” which is why it is often referred to as the “fool hen.”

Found in northern coniferous forest habitats from Alaska to Maine, Spruce Grouse arguably have their largest distribution and greatest abundance in our state. Where are Spruce Grouse found in Maine? Try to envision a mature spruce forest somewhere in Down East or northern Maine — undisturbed canopies of tall lichen-clad spruces and pines; beams of streaked sunlight penetrating between the thick branches to reach the moist mossy ground; below the vaulted canopy, an understory of scattered smaller trees and bushes competing for the sustaining light. The scene has a definite ancient character to it.

Our imaginary visual tour site might well be Great Wass Island in Washington County, where I took the accompanying Spruce Grouse photo. The male’s black chest and dark gray/brown plumage speckled with white barring blends handily with his wooded background; arching red eye combs add a dramatic flair to an otherwise inconspicuous presence. When approached, Spruce Grouse rely on cryptic camouflage and immobility to avoid detection. They may crouch on the ground or run a short distance only to land in a nearby tree. As the most arboreal grouse, they are well adapted to perching and moving about in trees.

The Spruce Grouse diet changes throughout the year. Consisting mainly of pine and spruce needles in winter, the summer diet includes berries, succulent leaves and insects. To accommodate the stringent winter diet of tough needles, the gizzard actually grows by 75 percent and the digestive tract increases in length. Spruce Grouse and Ruffed Grouse can and do occur in the same habitats, but there is no open hunting season for Spruce Grouse in Maine.