The Fool Hen: Spruce Grouse

Spruce Grouse by Luke Seitz


When Spruce Grouse is approached by a predator, it relies on camouflage and stillness to stay hidden, often allowing people to approach within a few feet before exploding into flight. This behavior has earned the species the nickname of “fool hen.” (Other birds that rely on cryptic coloration include American Woodcock and Snowy Plover.)


Spruce Grouse are at home in the trees and prefer to walk along tree limbs or on the ground rather than fly. Each fall they grow "snowshoes"—short fleshy bristles called pectinations—on their toes, which help support the bird on snow and probably help to grip slippery branches as well. These bristles are shed each spring.


True to its name, the Spruce Grouse’s chief food is conifer needles. This is the species’ only food source during the winter, when the birds’ gastrointestinal tract enlarges to help digest the tough foliage. Spruce Grouse shift to a more varied diet in the breeding season, adding berries, assorted green plants, fungi, and some insects to their diet.


While Spruce Grouse are secure in the majority of their range, the species is in decline in northern New York and New England, where harvest of the mid- to late-successional coniferous forests and coniferous forested wetlands is causing fragmentation and loss of the grouse’s preferred habitat. (Other grouse, such as the Greater Sage-Grouse, are in steep decline. You can help.)

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