Spruce grouse, (Chanachites canadensis), often known as spruce hens or spruce chickens, are forest dwellers, and they occur throughout Alaska. Here in the Interior and in Southcentral Alaska, the brown-tipped tail distinguishes the spruce grouse from the ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse. They are dark, chunky birds which are hard to spot unless they move or are on a roadside gathering gravel for their gizzards. I suspect that many times I have passed by just a few feet away from a grouse which sat motionless in a tree.
When my son saw his first spruce grouse he called for me to “come see the black ptarmigan that was in the driveway”. He also wondered if we could get a flock of them like the chickens our friends had. The spruce grouse’s similarities to its domestic relatives were obvious to even a 4-year old. It certainly seems the grouse has a temperament that would suit it to easy domestication.
The grouse is a tasty meal when it is still feeding on a variety of flowers, green leaves and berries, particularly blueberries and lowbush cranberries. But in the winter, their meat is not nearly as palatable as they feed heavily on conifer needles and do almost all their foraging in trees. And, unlike chickens, spruce grouse have all dark meat, due to the concentration of blood vessels in their muscles. Lack of blood vessels in the breasts of domestic chickens and turkeys explains their white breast muscles and also the reason why they fly weakly and for very short distances.
Instead of teeth, the grouse has a powerful gizzard that grinds food when necessary. Lack of teeth eliminates the need for heavy jaws and jaw muscles. This helps to lighten a bird’s head, which is a definite advantage in flight. Most spruce grouse are permanent residents but some move short distances (less than 10 miles) between summer and winter territories. This migration is accomplished mostly on foot and females are more likely to move than males and they tend to go farther. Local populations fluctuate in numbers and winter kill has a more dramatic effect than hunting does on our northern populations. The male spruce grouse begins courtship displays during the first warm days of April. In May, he also begins to preform aerial displays by flying steeply downward from a tree and settling to the ground on rapidly beating wings which produce a muffled drumming that is so low pitched it is only audible within 100 to 200 yards. The hen builds a shallow nest on the ground and lays from four to 10 eggs.
Shortly after hatching, the downy young leave the nest, but the female will brood them at night and in cool weather. The young find all their own food, and, unlike their parents who tend to be vegetarian, the young have a high protein diet of insects. During the cold winter nights (and days) of the Denali area, they often spend many hours in a snow roost, taking advantage of the insulating quality of the dry snow.