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Blue grouse often provide the western upland bird hunter with the first hunting opportunity of the new season with dates opening as early as the first of September in New Mexico and Colorado, as well as many other states.

This is a special time of year to be in the high mountains of the West as fall is just beginning, the days are cool and the nights are crisp. A blue grouse hunt can often be combined with other bird hunting opportunities and excellent trout fishing.

Taxonomists have identified two species of the blue grouse; the sooty and the dusky, with multiple subspecies of each. For the purposes of this article we will deal with the dusky blue grouse, which is found in the four corners states plus Nevada and southcentral Wyoming.

The sooty blue grouse occurs in the rest of the eleven western states, western Canada and southeastern Alaska. Colorado and Utah are the states with the most abundant habitat for the dusky blue grouse. The higher elevations of northern New Mexico, at times, have surprisingly good numbers of birds. The mountain ranges in the southern and southwestern part of this state also have viable populations. Arizona has rather limited appropriate habitat, but the north Kaibab Plateau and the White Mountain region have huntable populations. Nevada's best blue grouse opportunities apparently occur in the higher elevations of the northeastern portion of the state. The seasons are relatively long in all these states.

Blue grouse are birds of the high mountain country, typically vegetated with aspen, fir and spruce. Locating blue grouse below 8500 foot elevation is uncommon. On several occasions I have encountered them at or even above timberline. Some key considerations for finding birds are of course, appropriate habitat and food.

Blue grouse do not typically range too distant from dense stands of cover provided by the previously mentioned conifers and aspens. Abandoned logging roads and the adjacent terrain are frequented by these birds, as are meadow clearings within the dense conifer cover. Hunting the base and tops of knolls and ridges often produces birds. Pursuing these birds in the dense cover can be very frustrating as the birds are frequently flushed without providing the opportunity for a shot. The pursuit of "blues" is cetainly no "walk in the park". It seems to me that I spend more time hoofing it uphill as opposed to semi-level or downhill slopes. One consolation, however, is that flushed birds generally fly downhill. The blue grouse brood group, hen and her poults, are usually feeding from sunup until midmorning, then again in the late afternoon. Hunting can be very productive following rain showers. Apparently these blrds secure the moisture they need from dew, rain and their food sources.

Blue grouse utilize a wide variety of food sources. Currants, elderberries, raspberries, vetch, strawberries, aspen leaves, dandelions, clover blooms and buds plus numerous other plant sources. Early in the season the hen and her brood will feed heavily on insects, in my experience, principally grasshoppers but also ants and beatles. As Fall progresses, the birds will become dependent on available plant sources and ultimately, as Fall wanes, the birds will feed almost exclusively on the needles and buds of Douglas fir and other conifers. This is their feeding practice until the next Spring.

The male blue grouse is a solitary soul, as he leaves the rearing of the chicks exclusively to the hen. Typically the male does not venture far from heavy cover, whereas the hen and her brood venture into the more open areas as previously mentioned. The male bird is relatively large with a mature bird frequently weighing in excess of three pounds. A mature hen will weigh two pounds or slightly less. The juvenile birds will average between 1 1/4 and 1 1/2 pounds. A mature cock bird in the early Fall will appear basically slate gray on the chest area and blue gray in the flanks. The tail is relatively long and squared with a light gray band at the end of the tail, this is consistent in both sexes. White feathering interspersed with gray flecking is present on the legs, underbelly and beneath the tail and has small white feathers around the base of the neck and under the chin. The back of this bird is a random mixture of shades of brown and gray. The wings are basically gray. The comb over the eyes are yellowish orange.

The early Fall adult female is a beautifully mottled combination of brown hues and gray. The head is barred at the top and on the nape of the neck. The wings of the adult female are more brownish as opposed to the gray of the adult male.

Birds of the year generally resemble the adult female, however these youngsters have buff colored breasts, no gray coloration on the belly and lack the gray bar at the end of the tail.

Now that you know what blue grouse look like, where to find them and what they eat, let's talk about loads, guns and dogs. Blue grouse are not particularly hardy, so I generally shoot medium loads of 7 or 7 1/2 Iead, most flushes will occur within twenty five yards or closer, sometimes much closer,which, in my opinion strongly suggests using an open choke gun; gauge of your choice. Dogs, both pointing and flushing varieties, only add to the pleasure of hunting this bird. Scenting conditions are usually good and the cover often what bird hunters dream about. Blue grouse are often the first upland birds hunted by our young dogs, with exceptionally good results. Don't be surprised if, upon flushing a brood group some of the birds land in nearby trees; causing them to flush again can be a test of wills. Good retrieving skills are critical given the nature of the terrain and potentially dense cover.

Now,let's assume you have been successful in your pursuits and have some birds in the bag. You are in for a culinary treat! Picking birds can be a tedious task, but in this instance most definitely worth the effort. Roast grouse stuffed with sweet apples and celery is certainly a sterling preparation.

At our grouse camp we pick the birds, butterfly them and cook over hardwood coals or charcoal briquets, adding alder chips for additional flavor. Baste the birds frequently with either a butter and lemon mixture or a commercially available white wine worchestershire sauce. If you know your mushrooms you may well be able to collect and cook these as a most desirable side dish; sautee these editable fungi in butter with a touch of garlic. Likewise, raspberries which you gathered during or after your hunt provide a unique and tasty dessert. What a great way to end a successful day in some of the West's most scenic country. Have fun.

C.J. Biller
WGA Member