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The Capercaillie { Birds of Europe}

Updated on October 6, 2014




The Capercaillie belongs to the Galliformes order of birds and the family Phasianidae. It has been allocated the genus name of Tetrao from Greek indicating a type of game bird. The specific name for the bird urogallus derives from the German auerhuhn indicating a cock + gallus Latin indicating cock.

In the UK it is paced on the Red List of conservation concern as a reintroduced breeder. It was reintroduced to Perthshire Scotland, in 1873 after its original extinction in the 1770's. There have been recent declines in breeding populations. There is an estimated 1,300 individuals in Scotland {2009-10}. {source BTO}

In Europe there is an estimated population of between 360,000 and 550,000 breeding pairs.Europe forms 25-49% of the global population. Here are some examples of population estimates in various countries. Austria 4,800-8,000 breeding pairs, Croatia 35-140 breeding pairs, France 1,300- 3,000 breeding pairs,Germany 650-970 breeding pairs, Spain, 1,900-2,000 breeding pairs Sweden 84,000-110,000 breeding pairs and Ukraine 800-1,000 breeding pairs {Source Birdlife}

They are distributed in north and central Europe and north and central Asia where they inhabit coniferous forests. The Gaelic Capall-coille, and the Irish Capall coille.

They are by far the largest member of the Grouse family and looks more like a than a grouse. Here we look at the species along with historical notes from past ornithologists and other eminent writers. As always we commence with a description of the subject under review.

Crossley's ID Britain and Ireland  Richard Crossley
Crossley's ID Britain and Ireland Richard Crossley | Source

Description of the Capercaillie

The colour of the adult male is dark,slate grey, the wing coverts and scapular feathers being chestnut,each feather finely lined or vermiculated with white. the bill is much hooked,the upper mandible extending over the end and sides of the lower one.. The mandibles are of a whitish horn colour. the skin over the bill is cast at certain seasons. The iris is hazel,over it a crescent shaped bare patch of bright scarlet and under it a small mark of white feathers.

The head and crown feathers are rather elongated, the neck on the back and nape are brownish black,minutely freckled with greyish white. The feathers of the chin and throat are also somewhat elongated and can be raised at will.

The tail is rather long and much rounded,consists of feathers which are black with some irregular white marks and one interrupted white bar at the end. The legs are covered with downy feathers above the knee which are greyish brown tipped with white,below the knee they are greyish brown minutely waved with reddish-brown. The toes are bare of feathers and a dark ashy brown and strongly pectinated. The claws are blunt and blackish brown.

The females are chestnut,barred with black and the feathers tipped with white. These white tips of the hen become much more conspicuous in the autumn and greatly alter the appearance of the bird.

The manners of the Capercaillie are particularly dull and heavy,although the hen bird is generally more active than the male. Its walk resembles that of the Turkey,carrying the body horizontally, the tail drooping,and the head projected forward with a long neck, however, if the bird needs too, it can run very fast. Its wariness and sharp eye sight and its good sense of hearing aids its safety from predators.

The bird is about 74 long and weighs -the male 4.3kg and the female 2kg.

Female Capercaillie


Conservation notes.

According to Scottish National Heritage the populations in the southern parts of Scotland are no longer viable despite intensive efforts to save them. A cluster of small populations in the Trossachs and Argyle have steadily declined over recent decades.

The last of these populations are centred on some of the Loch Lomond islands,has now dwindled to the point where there are only a few birds left, and there have been no signs of the birds breeding in the last two years. The nearest strong population is now in the Cairngorms National Park,in the Scottish Highland's -well beyond the distance the birds will travel to search for a territory or mate. It is estimated that 80% of the UK population is in the park {2009-10}.

Courtesy Clyde Puffer

Familiar Wild Birds  -Swaysland 1838
Familiar Wild Birds -Swaysland 1838

General information and historical observations

This magnificent bird, the largest of the family,received the specific name of urogallus which roughly translates as 'wild ox-cock' in reference to its size, was formerly a native of the north of England,Scotland and Ireland, but it was exterminated in the 1700's. It was reintroduced into Scotland about 1856 by Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton. There is evidence that they were reintroduced into Perthshire earlier in 1837.

Seebohm {1885},gives an interesting account of it as observed by him in Siberia.He describes it as a bird of powerful flight and notes," The motion of the wings are rapid,steady and not particularly noisy,except when it gets up suddenly. On such occasions there is noise enough and the contemplative traveller who flushes a Capercaillie unexpectedly at his feet as he strolls a mountain or moor, may be excused if some seconds elapse before he ha recollected his scattered senses, and realised the fact that the world has not come to an end"

On their history in Scotland,the Rev.Morris conveys in his book 'A History of Birds' c1847 " "This chieftan grouse, the pride of the northern forests has long since disappeared from the scene,where his race for ages dwelt, the gallant Capercaillie of Scotland. The year 1745 was a memorable one in the records of the clan,for it was last seen in Strath Spey,though he held his own in Strath Glass and Glen Moriston till 1769.

Still he finds a place in my 'History of British Birds' and though the native branch of the family is extinct,collateral ones still hold sway in other lands,and individuals from there have several times been introduced with a view to re-naturalisation here,and with some success. In 1838 and 1839,Lord Breudalbane received 54 adult birds from Norway and their descendants in large numbers dignify the old woods about Taymouth Castle, Drummond Hill, Kenmore Hill and Croftmorraig Hill and others. So the King of game birds may now be said to be restored to his hereditary dominions."

Capercaillie male in winter.


Capercaillie as a table bird

According to records,the superiority of the hen,when brought to the table has been assigned to the fact that she obtains her food from the ground, whilst the male,living so much on the trees,is tempted to feed on pine needles even during the summer months.

The flesh of the young Caperacillie is, in the opinion on many superior to that of the Black grouse,although according to Butler " are apt to have a turpentine flavour from its feeding on the leaves of Scotch pine" he goes on to say " thousands of birds are sent into the London markets from northern Europe during the winter, being forwarded in a frozen condition. The length of the male may be taken as two feet eight inches and its weight sometimes reaches fourteen pounds. The female is much less in size being only twenty six inches in length."

Morris relates, as a Game-bird,it is of course made use of for the table, but it is not particularly good eating, the eggs however,are so. It will keep when dried for a year. Abroad,they are caught in traps,and are also watched for by gunners,who lie in wait for them all night"

Capercaillie in captivity----"The eggs of the Capercaillie are easily hatched in confinement, and the young birds can be readily reared" according to Lord Lilford," but they cannot be kept for any time in an ordinary aviary, as they require an extensive range and a great variety of food"

Another author remarks " they are frequently domesticated,so much so as to feed out of the hand,and they have been known to breed in confinement. They at times,however, become fierce and will attack people,and one has even been known to do so in the wild state,battling with any intruder on his wood"

The Capercaillie is almost exclusively a bird of the forests and during the winter feeds on pine needles and the shoots of pine.It sometimes takes acorns and the buds and shoots of dwarf shrubs and sedges.

Breeding habits

The breeding habits of these birds are quite remarkable. Although polygamous the males are said to exceed the females in number,consequently their combats are very severe,and seem to be carried out regardless of the danger, so much so, that in days gone by they could be caught by hand by the bird catchers. This despite them being ever so wary at other times.

The mating season commences in March and may continue until May.The males famous for their clicking,gulping and saw whetting calls,display and strut their stuff at leks {open spaces in the forest where the birds gather in spring}. The males who make their strange calls to maintain their status with other males, fan their tails whilst doing so. The females visit the leks and choose the strongest male available. The old name for the bird was 'Cock of the Wood' indeed it is the only name used by Meyer {vol 4 1847}.

Once the male has mated with the hen he takes no further part in the rearing of his young.

The birds perch in trees and and are wary for the greater part of the year


Nest eggs and young.

The nest of the Capercaillie is simply a scrape in the ground among the heather or other small, dense shrub or vegetation,it has no lining of any kind with the exception of a few pine or spruce needles or blades of dry grass. The female will deposit her eggs {7-11} which are of a pale buff colour,spotted with darker brown.

The eggs are incubated for 24-26 days by the female,before the young peck their way into the world. The chicks leave the nest within a day of hatching though the female still offers them shelter from the weather and protects them from predators.

The young chicks are fed on insects and invertebrates they find in the ground vegetation. When they grow independent they will feed during the summer on the foliage of dwarf shrubs and sedges and during the winter on pine shoots and needles.

Predators in the UK include the fox crow and birds of prey.If the female is aware of approaching danger when with her young,she follows the manner of the hen pheasant,in crouching down flat to the ground with her brood until the danger has past. if the danger continues to become threatening then they all run out and fy away together,under such circumstances, the whole party tends to fly away to the safety of a tree,where they perch concealed by the branches.

Young birds of the first year are similar in appearance to the adult females. The young males do not attain their full growth until the third year.

Eggs of the Capercaillie



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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, they were once eaten in some regions,but,like you, I do not fancy trying them. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Gorgeous looking birds. I would imagine that if this bird ingested conifer needles as implied, it would be a rather rough taste.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hello Devika they are wonderful birds. Thank you for your kind comments and for the vote up interesting,useful and interesting all of which is much appreciated. Best wishes to you.

      Ericdieker, thank you too, best wishes to you.

      Raimer Gel, glad to have introduced you to the Capercaillie. Best wishes to you.

    • profile image

      Raimer Gel 

      6 years ago

      That is a new bird for me! I'd be glad to see it in person.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      6 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Quite interesting thank you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      6 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      What a lovely bird. It has such different kind of feathers and the colors are so dark. You always have such well researched information and to the point. Voted up, useful interesting and beautiful.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hello my friend, They are beautiful birds indeed. Thank you for your kind comments. You have a good day also.Best wishes to you.

    • prasetio30 profile image


      6 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Beautiful and I love this bird. Thanks for sharing with us. Nice pictures as well. Good job and have a good day!



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