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Black Grouse { Birds of Europe }

Updated on May 13, 2015

Male Black Grouse Tetrao tetrix

Taken National Park Bavarian Forest
Taken National Park Bavarian Forest | Source

Attwater's prairie chicken occurs in the USA

Public domain
Public domain | Source

Male Sage grouse Centrocercus urophasianus

Public domain
Public domain | Source


The Black grouse belongs to the Galliformes order of birds and the family Tetraonidae within that order. The genus name derives from Greek tetraon a type of Game bird . The specific name of tetrix fro Greek tetrix a ground bird mentioned by Aristotle ,possibly a game bird. It is some times referred to as Lyrurus tetrix.

In the UK it is placed on the Red list of conservation concern {declines of over 50% in the last forty years or so},with an estimated 5,100 males in summer {2006}. This is due to historical and recent declines. There are six sub-species in the world. In Europe they are of 3 concern most in Europe depleted. The total European population is estimated between 515,000-one million pairs. The population varies from country to country and there follows some selected examples.

The Austrian population is estimated at between 10,000-15,000 Breeding Pairs {BP} Belgium 15-30 BP. Czech Republic 800-1,000 BP. France 7,000-10,000 BP.Germany 1,100-1,600 BP.Norway 100,000-200,000, BP Russia {whole of} 1,850,000-2,150,000 BP. Sweden 150,000-200,000 BP. and Ukraine 1,600-3,000 BP.

They are birds of Forest and forest edge and are found in northern Eurasia.The Gaelic name for the bird is Coileach-dubh,the Welsh Gruiar Ddu. Spanish Gallo lira

Ruffed grouse in Canada

Uploaded to Commons by Magnus Manske
Uploaded to Commons by Magnus Manske | Source

What are grouse ?

Grouse are a group of birds from the order known as the Galliformes of the large family Phasiandiae,but frequently assigned to the sub-family of Tetraonidae. grouse are heavily built like other Galliformes such as the domestic chickens. males are bigger than the females,twice as heavy in the Capercaille **,the largest member of the family.

Grouse have feathered nostrils. Their legs are feathered to the toes,and in winter the toes too may be feathered. Unlike other members of the Galliformes such as the Pheasant ** they have no spurs. they are birds of the northern hemisphere and in habit Pine forests to moorland and mountain sides. Examples are the rock ptarmigan that occurs in northern Greenland and the Attwater's Prairie Chicken in Texas USA.

Grouse are classed as Game birds and hunters and 'sportsmen' kill millions each year across their range for food and other uses. here in the UK this is achieved by organized 'driven' Grouse shoots. The feathers of the male have been used to adorn hats in some regions.

In the genus Tetrao it includes the Caucasian grouse T,miokastewizi,. Western Capercaiile, T.urogallus. Cantabrian Capercaillie T,urogallus cantabricus. Black billed Capercaillie T.T.urogalloides and the subject of our review the Black Grouse. As always we commence with a description of the species under review.

** these species have already been reviewed in this series.

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley.
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley. | Source

Description of the Black grouse

At a Glance- The male has a plumage of glossy black and on the neck and rump a shiny blue. The wing barred and under tail coverts white. The tail of the Black cock is remarkable the feathers curving outwards on each side leaving a wide gap in the centre,giving the bird a remarkable appearance,which is not fully developed until the third season. Each sex has a characteristic naked red skin over the eye.

The female referred to as the Grey hen is chestnut brown,barred with black.

In More Detail- The male Black cock has a bill dusky black,irides dark blue and over each eye is a semilunar patch of naked bright scarlet skin.Under each eye there is a spot of a dusky white colour. The head and neck,breast, back and rump all of a rick black reflecting steel blue and purple. The quills are brown,secondary feathers and wing coverts tipped with white. The belly ,wing coverts, the tail pitch black the latter which consists of sixteen feathers is deeply forked,the out side feathers curving outwardly. The end of the outside one seems as if cut off,the under tail coverts pure white.

The legs and thighs,covered with dark brown, mottled with white feathers.The legs are feathered down to the toes,which have lateral fringes. the male is about 48-55 cm { 16-22 inches} long. and weighs 0.75-1.4 Kg { one and a quarter to three pounds}.

In the female as in the male the bill is dusky black and there is the same dusky white patch beneath the eye. The head and neck are ochre yellow,rayed with black. The upper parts are brownish orange as a ground colour barred and speckled with black. The feathers on the wings and shoulders have a black centre,but the shaft is of a pale colour,which gets broader and paler at the tip.

The greater wing coverts are tipped with white. The tail which consists of eighteen feathers,is very slightly forked,of a reddish brown,spotted with black.the tip is greyish white. The under tail coverts are white,with a few bars of orange black.

Black grouse in winter.

Glen Quaich  Breadalbane Scotland.
Glen Quaich Breadalbane Scotland. | Source

Black grouse in Norway,courtesy of Arne Flor. Standard You Tube license. Small fight at a lek

Illustration of Black grouse.

Illustration by Edward Lear
Illustration by Edward Lear | Source

Black grouse 'Lekking'

Taken at Hallsbery-Sweden
Taken at Hallsbery-Sweden | Source

General and historical information

The Black grouse is usually to be found on rough moors where there is a combination of wood and water and usually an abundance of rushes. The food varies greatly according to locality and season. the seeds of rush are eagerly taken,stubble fields are gleaned in autumn and in the spring the young shoots of trees are devoured. According to records a crop of one bird killed in February was filled with leaves of Buttercups,buds of Birch and Willow. Young chicks tend to be fed on invertebrates.

During the autumn and winter the males live together in small flocks. before the breeding season they separate and engage in combats.An interesting and full account of the habits of these birds in spring is recorded by Mr. Bath in his 'Rough Notes',he says--

" In fine weather ,during the winter and early spring, the oldest birds collect at day break in some open spot,and go through the most extraordinary manoeuvres, at times these performances appear to be indulged in simply for amusement,as spring advances,however, the animosity of the birds increases. In December 1867,having frequently watched these gatherings from a distance without a chance of closely inspecting the whole of the proceedings,I carefully marked the place { a bare spot on a heather-clad slope of the hillside,facing towards the south},where the birds had collected for several mornings in succession,and determined to make an attempt to witness their antics at close quarters."

" The ground having previously looked over and a good hiding place decided upon. We arrived at the spot an hour before day break,and creeping into a regular nest of rugs and plaits which the Keepers had arranged, I was well covered with dry heather and brakes {Bracken},and finally sprinkled with snow. The men were sent away and I quietly awaited the course of events. Shortly after the first streak of day light has appeared in the east a rush of wings were heard,and a magnificent old black cock.passed within a few feet of my head,settled upon the open space some twenty yards away.For fully ten minutes there were no other arrivals and I began to fear some other spot had been chosen for the days amusements. Suddenly three or four more old cocks appeared on the scene,having probably alighted quietly on the other side of the brae"

" For a few moments they remained silently watching one another,apparently waiting for a signal from the leader. I next caught sight of two or three small parties flying high in the air,direct from the hills,on the opposite side of the steep burn. After circling once round the spot they alighted lower down the hill,and some of them,principally Grey hens,remained where they settled,while the males gradually ascended the rising ground,picking their way with the greatest care,carrying their tails high over their backs,either to show themselves to the greatest advantage,or to avoid contact with the snow."

" They were speedily followed by others,and they kept on gathering,till between thirty and forty more were collected in a kind of irregular circle.The old cock who had first appeared,and was evidently looked upon as the master of ceremonies,now advanced to the centre of the arena. His comb was elevated,his wings drooped,his tail curved over his back,and every feather even down to his toes,spread out to the fullest extent. After bowing all round and apparently being satisfied that no one wished to dispute his title to be considered the greatest swell present,he proceeded to execute movements which seemed to consist of a kind of double shuffle,hop,skip and a jump,and was concluded by an almost complete somersault."

"Others with ruffed plumage then made their way towards the open ground,strutting jauntily forward as if eager to join the fray though their demeanour of the combatants was certainly threatening their encounters appeared almost perfectly harmless. The fiercest battles are known to take place in spring towards the end of March. A few years back,I came unexpectedly upon a small party of five or six Black cocks,with a few Grey hens,on an open patch in a straggling Birch plantation that stretched down to the waterside."

" Two of the cocks were indulging in the most savagely contested fight I have ever witnessed,tumbling over each other,either up or down, they bit and flapped with the greatest fury,till rolling over a slope on a bank they were lost to view. Some of the Grey hens,who were spectators,had perched themselves on the boughs of trees,and appeared to regard the combat with the utmost attention"

Black Grouse Lek Courtesy of Per Johan Naesje,Standard You Tube license. Deep in a Norway woodland

Black grouse as a food item

As an article of food the Black Grouse was generally much admired though certainly no means equal to the Red grouse. It is remarkable in having the greater and lesser pectoral muscles of different colours. The outside or greater one, being very dark,while the lesser one nearest the breast bone ,is remarkably white and was regarded as the favourite part of the epicure.

At the commencement of the shooting season the bird will lie like a stone,but later on becomes very wild and extremely difficult to approach. In 'sporting' parlance you are said to 'spring' or 'raise' Black grouse. You find a 'brood' of grouse. You kill a 'brace' or a 'leash' of Black game,and when a number congregate together they are said to 'pack'.

Male Black Grouse


Egg of the Black grouse


Breeding,nest eggs and young birds

Black Cocks have an elaborate courtship display.Males gather in arenas known as leks and attempt to attract females. The dominant males will hold the centre of the arena and be the most successful. The cock at this time is in his most brilliant plumage and the naked red wattle over his eye assumes a brighter scarlet colour. { see Video and general information above}.

Once mating has commenced the female will make the nest,usually under the shelter of some low bush or rank grass,and deposit their eggs which number from six to eleven,and of a yellowish white colour,varying at times to pale yellowish red,irregularly spotted. The female will incubate the eggs for a period of twenty six to twenty seven days.

When the chicks hatch they are covered with a fine, close down and the chicks leave the nest under the watchful eye of the mother soon after hatching. Butler 'British Birds with their nest and Eggs',remarks " The eggs of the Grey hen may readily be placed under a common fowl,and the young are easily reared if supplied with natural food,such as ant's eggs ,earth worms,canary seed and oatmeal. They must also have access to suitable green food {seeds of rushes etc}", he goes on to say ," reared in this way they become exceedingly tame,and assume their full plumage before they attempt to fly away,being much tamer than young Pheasants **,reared under the same conditions."

Another eminent writer records " Various efforts have been made,at different times ,to domesticate the Black grouse,but as yet entirely without success,for in no instance have they ever bred while in a state of captivity. they do however, not only live,but individually do well in confinement"

Once the hen has laid her eggs she is deserted by the male who once again assembles in small flocks where they resort to secluded and quiet woods and thickets where they will remain until their autumn moult has been completed.

The young chicks will become independent in a further ten to fourteen days after hatching. In their first plumage both sexes resemble the female and they continue with her until the autumnal moult,when the young males join the old cocks,with whom they will remain until the following spring. Young males do not attain their full adult plumage till well after this stage in their development.

Female {grey hen } perched on a branch.



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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, the lek video by Johan Naesje, is fantastic. I do wish you luck with your hope to see the Prairie Chicken. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I enjoyed the video of the competing males in the Norwegian lek. These are simply gorgeous birds. One day, I hope to see the prairie chicken here in Oklahoma, but have heard that they made no appearance at the festival, and sadly, it may never happen again. Wish me luck one day.


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