Saturday, February 11, 2017

Adirondack Wildlife: The Disappearing Spruce Grouse

The spattering of sizable tracts of boreal forests that remain in the Adirondacks serve as home to several species of birds that have evolved the ability to survive in northern taiga woodlands. Among the feathered creatures that are well adapted for a life in lowland stands of conifers is the spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis), a dark colored bird viewed by some as being as much a symbol of the Great Northwood’s as the moose.

As its name implies, the spruce grouse inhabits those softwood forests dominated mainly by spruce; yet not all spruce forests serve as home to this northern bird. High elevation forests that cover the upper slopes of our tallest peaks are not as suitable as lowland locations despite the similar presence of spruce and balsam fir. Because higher altitudes are more frequently buffeted by strong winds, the microclimate that exists there is more adverse than the one that characterizes sheltered, lowland settings.

Unlike most other fowl, the spruce grouse spends a considerable amount of time among the branches of trees, and windy conditions can seriously impact its feeding and roosting routine. Also, rime ice often encrusts the foliage of the conifers at these higher elevations when moisture-laden clouds sweep over the summits. Although this icy covering on all the trees of a hillside creates a spectacular winter image for hikers, it greatly interferes with the spruce grouse’s ability to forage.

Relatively small patches of spruce and balsam fir that are separated from other boreal woodlands by a fair distance are not considered to be ideal habitat either. These small, widely scattered clumps of spruce and fir are often too isolated for this bird to locate when young adults begin to search for a territory in the spring. It has been shown that the spruce grouse tends to claim a territory of about 15 to 50 acres during the breeding season. An area much smaller than this may seem great, but it could simply be too confining for this bird.

Sizeable stretches of spruce and fir forests in which the soil is damp are considered to be ideal for the spruce grouse. Also, places in which numerous small openings of less than half an acre in the forest canopy are scattered across the terrain are known to be highly attractive to this bird. Such small clearings are perfect for the growth of blueberries and other small shrubs that can provide this bird with fruit during the mid-summer.

Small clearings in such damp locations also tend to allow for the growth of tamarack, a conifer that is used by this grouse during the autumn. Researchers have noted that as colder weather becomes more common in fall, the spruce grouse concentrates much of its needle nibbling time on the soft foliage of tamarack before these flexible structures drop to the ground. It is unknown what impact tamarack needles have on their physiology, but it is at this time of year that the digestive system of the spruce grouse changes, in order to better accommodate its winter diet of spruce needles.

Along with developing added length to its intestinal tract to deal with the processing of spruce needles, the crop of the spruce grouse also expands greatly in size with the approach of winter. In far northern latitudes, this bird is only able to forage among the branches of trees for 6 to 8 hours a day. Prior to sunset the grouse ingests a sizeable quantity of food that it temporarily holds in its crop and gradually releases into its digestive system throughout the night. It is reported that the crop, a sac located at the end of its throat, just before its gizzard, can hold one-tenth of the bird’s body weight in food.

The dark plumage of the spruce grouse allows this bird to blend well into the darkened background that commonly exists in evergreen forests. As a rule, its protective coloration is so effective that few predators are able to notice it as it perches among the twigs and branches of a spruce-fir thicket. Because this bird has learned to depend on its camouflage for protection, it tends to remain motionless when a large animal, like a human approaches it.

As some birds, like the wild turkey, expand their range northward into the forests of the Adirondacks, others, like the spruce grouse appear to be retreating from the region. As our climate warms and our forests mature, the wildlife communities they support will also change. Perfectly static environments are rare as changes are inevitable. It will be a shame to have the spruce grouse disappear from our landscape, however, I am very fearful that it may become only one of many forms of life that will be unable to continue to exist in the future here in the Adirondacks.

Photo: Female spruce grouse, courtesy Algonquin Provincial Park, Canada.

A version of this story first appeared in the Adirondack Almanack in 2012.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

17 Responses

  1. Richard MacKinnon says:

    I found this a great example of the impact of environment and how little we “civilians” understand about what wildlife is up against on a daily basis. Our cup of tea almost certainly is not theirs. Great article, thanks.

  2. Chuck Parker says:

    Tom Kalinowski’s article on the spruce grouse was excellent. As an advocate for a balanced environment for wildlife and forest lands I say what exists, in the Adirondacks at this time does not benefit the spruce grouse. There are not enough of the required “softwood forests dominated mainly by spruce” in the Adirondacks that the spruce grouse needs. There are not enough of the required lands in acreage and arrangement throughout the Adirondacks, for sound spruce grouse population.
    Why, because how the lands are managed as a result of the Adirondack State Land Master Plan. There are classifications of lands as wilderness, which may actually be new growth lands due to recent logging, which prevents the management of these land as it evolves over time to where it would support a spruce grouse habitat at this time. There are hundreds if not in the thousands of acres, of lands on the Essex Chain Tract, recently acquired by the state that by the existing conditions should be considered transitional habitat but are classified as wilderness. They were significantly logged during the transition of ownership from Finch, to the Nature Conservancy, to the State. These lands could be managed now to benefit the Spruce grouse, with a little help from man, and still allow the lands to naturally evolve to maturity. Will this happen, most likely no, due to a true mis-classification of the lands.
    The lands of the Adirondacks are being managed for a mature forest. A stand of woods that currently will support a spruce grouse population will eventually mature to where that land can no longer support that population. What is happening after a nearly 70 years of management for big trees is that there is not the stage of new growth required by the spruce grouse available for the spruce grouse to move to once their present habitat matures and changes

    • George G says:

      John, I see you are being quite open minded about this issue. There are least 2 sides to every discussion, which seems like a foreign idea to you.

      • Wally says:

        It’s yet another example of the “alternative facts” espoused at the top levels of our so-called government today. Be open minded about whether real facts are true? Really?

    • Boreas says:

      Hey, how about Boreas Ponds? Probably some good habitat there. We would just need to make sure we didn’t run them over.

  3. Smitty says:

    What do you say Tom? Fact, or “alternative fact”? I’ve come to really appreciate your articles and trust your opinion.

  4. CommunityGuy says:

    Over the past twenty years in the northern foothills of the Adirondacks, I have witnessed a surprisingly rapid transition from Spruce-Fir forests to Mixed Deciduous. It took several years for me to realize what is going on. Now I see it easily.

    A few years back, I and my companion sat among a flock of Spruce Grouse for about 45 minutes. One perched about three feet from me for most of that time. I spoke to it several times and it seemed to enjoy my presence. Wonderful memory.

    Good article. Thanks.

  5. Jim Racquet says:

    I’m with Chuck not having a diverse forest is the reason the spruce grouse is in danger. They seem to be doing much better in the State Forests area due to the young forest initiative that is being implemented by the DEC.

  6. Tom Kalinowski says:

    I have been told, on more than one occasion, that any forest can be managed in a way to promote a specific population of animal, however, mother nature always has the last word on the success of any endeavor, as weather events and climate factors can dramatically impact the effectiveness of a project. 40 years ago I would have said that it could be possible to help the spruce grouse, however, with climate change having more of an impact on growing conditions here in the Adirondacks, and around the world, I’m not so sure. The spruce grouse is a resident of our boreal community, and it is my opinion that the decline of this bird, along with other members of this ecological zone, is being facilitated by changes in the climate. It is impossible for me to state for certain that any management program would help this species, or the others that reside in the same habitat. Perhaps some one with a greater depth of understanding of all the issues involved could shed some light on this subject.

  7. Boreas says:

    It is true that both Ruffed and Spruce Grouse prefer successional habitat – mixed hardwood/conifers for Ruffed and lowland boreal/taiga forest for Spruce Grouse. But I would hesitate to log or manage current mature boreal habitat in NYS to try to achieve successional stands of young boreal/spruce forests. It may no longer be possible.

    For one thing, we really don’t know what the result would be as the climate warms. Would our current mature-ish boreal forest be lost forever to forests with a higher percentage of hardwoods because of less snowfall and warmer temps? There is a reason there isn’t much boreal habitat left in NYS – we are at the edge of the taiga boundary which is likely to continue to move northward.

    Another consideration is what would we lose WRT species diversity that is currently present in our small boreal patches? Many species prefer mature boreal forest. Would we be hurting many species to try to save one that is doomed?

    I think the only certainty is that boreal forests in the NE US are likely doomed if warming trends continue. The Spruce Grouse is not endangered or even threatened across its range – only at the southern extremes of the range like in the ADKs. I am all for trying to preserve the species in NYS within reason, but I feel we should be very cautious about actively “managing” forest types that are indeed threatened as well – especially if it is unclear what the end result would be.

  8. Charlie S says:

    Climate change is,and will continue to be,the major cause of disruptions among ecosystems everywhere. It only makes sense that as the planet warms things are going to change not necessarily for the better. It wont be long before the first palm tree will be sighted on the Columbia County line,alligators will be seen in Blue Mountain Lake.

  9. Charlie S says:

    But of course Jim…all is in a continual state of flux,except for that or those which/whom appear to be stagnant.

    • James Marco says:

      Climate change through Global Warming cannot now be managed. It will effect the forest (more towards a deciduous woods) and the loss of many cold weather tolerant species. These are the tough, hangeroners that the Grouse seem to prefer. Until there is mitigation and control of the warming, there can be no effective management of the little boreal forests in the ADK’s. When was the last time ice was seen at Indian Pass in summer? There used to be snow there year round. The fringe communities of tundra, and boreal forest WILL be lost in NY. It is at the fringes that the most change will occur. We may live to see the Nortwest Passage open year round.The entire ecology of the area will go into a state of flux, as it is now doing. The decline of the Grouse are merely a symptom of global problem that cannot currently be changed. We cannot control weather.

  10. Charlie S says:

    “Until there is mitigation and control of the warming…”

    Even if we stop what we’re doing now with all of the emissions we spew it will take many decades if not longer to slow it down James. If it slows down! If carbon emissions are even the culprit which I believe is very possible. The scientists are surely saying so. Even if it’s just a cycle…to go about doing what we’ve been doing all along because we’re money-mad or because we’re unconcerned is mindless.

    • James Marco says:

      Charlie S, I agree totaly. I was trying to be unobtrusive.
      Scientifically, We are supposed to be in an ice age. Our past geological studies show a strong correlation between our earth’s orbit, the sun’s energy output and ice around the globe. This ignores the general trend of the earth cooling off from hot to warm to cool. Note that correlations do not say anything about the cause though. I personally believe that CO2 and other chemicals dumped as waste into the atmosphere are the cause, but this is only speculation.

      Today, we know that it is taking place, and further, that there is a global synergy. But, the “ball has been pushed” so to speak. Global warming will increase beyond what even conservative predictions now show for public consumption, if we stop all manufactuing and transportation, NOW. These are based on the last 100 years and NOT the current 20 year trend.

      I speculate, taking that trend to its limit at 2200, we will see a large increase in temps, average. Somewhere between 30F and 50F degrees. If we do nothing over that time, most of the equatorial regions will be uninhabitable. Only the Southern and Northern regions will be comfortable for the people of today. IFF we do nothing, the atmosphere will hold a lot more water, becoming cloudy…and plunge the planet into an ice age reversing this trend around 2200. This cycle is highly dangerous, HOT then COLD. We will need to preserve genetic diversity in all living things to prevent our planet from killing us because they don’t have the time to adapt. By then we will have lost most cold weather species (not enough time to adapt,) then we loose the warm weather species (not enough time to adapt,) leaving only a few plants and animals. And, we are doing this to ourselves. Like a colony of bacteria, expanding to it’s max and dying off in it’s own waste.

      • Boreas says:


        I would like to add that the adaptation to the changes by many animals is often facilitated by migration toward warmer or cooler temps. This is one of the reasons for the modern push toward wildlife corridors instead of isolated pockets – so that animals that have the ability to migrate can do so with minimal human interaction.