BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Dusky grouse are exceptionally beautiful birds
Earlier this September while archery hunting for elk in the Colorado Rockies, I encountered more dusky grouse than on any of the other trips I’ve made over the years. At nearly every turn it seemed, I was either flushing dusky grouse or observing them walking nonchalantly in front of me as I followed slowly behind.
The dusky grouse, formerly called blue grouse, is the second largest grouse in North America, although some accounts identify dusky grouse as the third largest because there are two subspecies of the larger sage grouse.
Similar in appearance to other grouse such as Minnesota’s ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chicken, the mountainous landscape of the West wherever pine, fir and aspen are abundant is where this special species of grouse calls home.
I have been fortunate to encounter dusky grouse on countless occasions over the past 16 years during my annual deer and elk hunts in Colorado. I’m always thrilled with observing this exceptionally beautiful bird while marveling at its seeming lack of fear. Indeed, getting up close and personal with dusky grouse is routine, whereas it’s the complete opposite with ruffed grouse.
Earlier this September while archery hunting for elk in the Colorado Rockies, I encountered more dusky grouse than on any of the other trips I’ve made over the years.
At nearly every turn it seemed, I was either flushing dusky grouse or observing them walking nonchalantly in front of me as I followed slowly behind.
One evening in Colorado, as I slowly made my way downslope back to camp, I crossed a mountain meadow of tall grass. Though the grass wasn’t particularly dense, I was surprised that I didn’t see the dusky grouse that flushed out of the grass only a few yards from my feet.
Then another grouse flushed to my right. And then another to my left. And another, and so on, until over a dozen dusky grouse flushed from the meadow all around me.
I was stunned because I did not observe ONE of the birds before each had flushed (despite my looking for them after the second bird flushed). It was unreal, and par for the course when one considers how cryptic all grouse are.
The plumage colors and patterns of all species of grouse — dusky grouse included — is Nature’s brilliant way of helping grouse survive. Though I consider myself a good and observant hunter, it was humbling to have stumbled into so many grouse without seeing any of them until each was airborne.
As mentioned, dusky grouse are large grouse. Between a crow and a goose in size, dusky grouse can obtain a weight of nearly three pounds with an overall length of nearly two feet.
To compare, ruffed grouse are typically about half the size of dusky grouse. And believe me, when a dusky grouse flushes, its wingbeat sounds twice as loud as ruffed grouse.
Like sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens, displaying male dusky grouse have visible air sacs on their necks. Dusky grouse air sacs are striking purplish red in color.
In fact, a displaying male during the springtime breeding season combines features of several gallinaceous birds: a strutting male dusky grouse fans out its tail feathers and struts like a wild turkey, spruce grouse and ruffed grouse. They vocalize like sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens and they inflate their air sacs as do sage grouse, prairie chickens, and sharp-tailed grouse.
Like spruce grouse, dusky grouse also employ the air for parts of their courtship displays by performing short flights to the ground from perches in trees.
As also mentioned, I’ve enjoyed numerous encounters with dusky grouse. Many years ago, while sitting on a steep, forested slope on an early morning mule deer hunt in the Rockies, I heard the faint sound of some creature that I couldn’t immediately identify. I remember thinking that it sounded like vocalizing sharp-tailed grouse. As it turned out, I wasn’t far off.
I soon observed two dusky grouse, side-by-side although separated by about 10 yards, slowly making their way upslope near where I sat on the ground against a log. Both birds passed on either side of me and gave me a ground view of these special birds as they went about their morning communicating and feeding together.
A short time later, both birds flushed and flew across the canyon, eventually disappearing out of view.
It’s interesting that so many different species of grouse have evolved across the continent and elsewhere, yet each species, with its own unique differences, all share something in common. Dusky grouse is a bird to appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.