Grouse (and ptarmigan) are medium-sized birds in the family Tetraonidae, order Galliformes. Grouse and ptarmigan are often hunted for food and sport, and are sometimes broadly referred to as upland gamebirds because they are not hunted in wetlands, as are ducks and geese.
Grouse are ground-dwelling birds with a short, turned-down bill. They have long, heavy feet with a short elevated fourth toe behind the short, rounded wings. Grouse have feathered ankles, and most grow fringes of feathers on their toes in the winter. In addition, the nostrils are feathered, and some species have a bright colored patch around the eyes.
Grouse are found throughout the temperate and more northerly zones of Eurasia and North America. There are 10 species of grouse in North America: blue grouse (Dendragapus obscurus), spruce grouse (Canachites canadensis), ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus), sharp-tailed grouse (Pedioecetes phasianellus), sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido), lesser prairie chicken (T. pallidicinctus), willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), rock ptarmigan (L. mutus), and white-tailed ptarmigan (L. leucurus). These grouse utilize most of the major habitat types of North America, with particular species being adapted to tundra, boreal forest, temperate forest, heathlands, or grasslands. The capercallie (Tetrao urogallus) is found in coniferous forests in Europe and Asia.
Throughout their range, grouse are hunted intensively. Fortunately, they have a high reproductive capability, and if conserved properly, can be sustainably harvested. In most areas, the most important threats to grouse are not from hunting, but from the more insidious effects of habitat loss. This effect on grouse is primarily associated with the conversion of their natural and semi-natural habitat to agricultural or urban use, or to extensive practice of plantation forestry. As a result, grouse and other wildlife are displaced.
Wildlife biologists have been able to develop management systems that can accommodate many types of agricultural and forestry activities, as well as the needs of most species of grouse. In North America, for example, economically productive forestry can be conducted in ways that do not degrade, and in fact can enhance, the habitat of certain species of grouse. Systems of co-management for ruffed grouse and forestry are especially well known.
The ruffed grouse is the most commonly hunted upland gamebird in North America, with about six million birds being harvested each year; an additional two million individuals of other species of grouse and ptarmigan are also killed annually. Ruffed grouse prefer a temperate forest mosaic, with both mature stands and younger brushy habitats of various ages, with a great deal of edge habitat among these types. Ruffed grouse can utilize a wide range of habitat types, but they do best in hardwood-dominated forests with some conifers mixed in. The most favored variety of forest is dominated by poplars (especially trembling aspen, Populus tremuloides) and birches (especially white birch, Betula papyrifera), but stands of various age are required. In Minnesota, it has been found that clear-cuts of aspen forest develop into suitable breeding habitat for ruffed grouse after 4-12 years of regeneration. These maturing clear-cuts are utilized as breeding habitat for 10-15 years. Older, mature aspen stands are also important to ruffed grouse, especially as wintering habitat. In general, to optimize habitat for ruffed grouse over much of its eastern range, a forest can be managed to create a mosaic of stands of different ages, each less than about 25 acres (10 hectares) in size.
In some circumstances, grouse hunting can be a more important use of the land than agriculture or forestry. In such instances, the needs of these birds are the primary consideration for landscape managers. This is the case where grouse hunting on large estates is a popular sport, for example, in Britain and some other European countries. In Scotland, upland heaths of red grouse (known as the willow ptarmigan in North America) are periodically burned by wildlife managers. This treatment stimulates the flowering and sprouting of fresh shoots of heather (Calluna vulgaris), an important food of the red grouse. The burnt patches are arranged to create a larger habitat mosaic that includes recently burned areas, older burns, and mature heather.
Although some species of grouse can be effectively managed for sustainable hunting, and the effects of many types of forestry and agricultural practices can be mitigated, it should be pointed out that other species of grouse have fared less well. In North America, the greater prairie chicken was once abundant in tall-grass and mixed-grass prairies and coastal heathlands. However, this species is now rare and endangered over its remaining, very-much contracted range, because most of its original habitat has been converted to intensively managed agriculture. One subspecies, known as the heath hen (T. c. cupido), was once abundant in coastal grasslands and heath barrens from Massachusetts to Virginia. However, largely because of habitat loss in combination with overhunting, the heath hen became extinct in 1932. Another subspecies, Attwater's greater prairie chicken (T. c. attwateri), was formerly abundant in coastal prairies of Texas and Louisiana, but this endangered bird is now restricted to only a few isolated populations.