A few years ago I went with my husband up the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay. We stopped a few different places including a storage yard and former state camp called Happy Valley where I found one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever happened upon… a raven’s nest in a mounted rack of moose antlers with two babies in it!
The one on the left has red combs above its eyes so we know it’s a male (click it for a better view). I’ve seen quite a few spruce grouse over the years but never have I seen the courtship display. The National Geographic Feild Guide to Birds says “In courtship strutting display, male spreads his tail, erects the red combs above his eyes, and rapidly beats his wings; some males also give a series of low-pitched hoots.” This would be something to see!
The male on the left is standing next to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and my husband and I saw at least 10 or 20 when we were driving the pipeline access road for a couple of hours. The spruce grouse is a game bird and hunters can take them throughout Alaska except during the months of May, June & July (with a few exceptions). It is somewhat common to hunt them for food. To me, this is a necessary evil. I’m a birder and I consider myself an environmentalist but I think that hunting has a role to play in a healthy diet. As long as the bird dies quickly and the meat is used for food I am not against this. I have had ptarmigan myself, but never grouse. It was delicious. Eating a bird that has had a ‘happy’ life is better for everyone, and for the world, than one who lives in tiny cages or in huge flocks in warehouses.
Residents of Alaska can also kill cormorants, crows, and Snowy Owls, as long as they are taken for food or clothing. It sounds cruel but there are Alaska Native traditions that involve these birds and their feathers and this must be respected as long as the birds are not endangered.
The spruce grouse on the right, and its chick, were spotted on a trail about a mile off the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks, back in 2006. You can see the female has a reddish-brown stripe over its eye, reminiscent of the male. I don’t remember exactly what time of year I took the photos but it was probably early June or late May. (I’m not sure exactly what to call the baby since it seems bigger than a chick and smaller than a juvenile. It’s more like a ‘tween. 🙂 )
Hard to believe but this bird subsists mainly on spruce needles! They must have powerful digestive systems. They can stuff their crops full of the equivalent of 10% of their body weight, to be digested later, and their gizzards grow by 75% during the winter when their energy needs increase.
As someone who lives in interior Alaska year-round, I’m quite impressed with a bird that can live here in the winter. Along with ravens and chickadees, they have adapted some clever ways to make it.
Here’s to a mild winter for us all!