Species: Sooty Grouse
Status: At risk, climate-threatened
The Sooty Grouse was thought to be the coastal subspecies of the Blue Grouse until it was discovered through DNA testing that they could be split into two subspecies, the Sooty Grouse as well as the Dusky Grouse.
You are most likely to see them when you hear the male Sooty Grouse performing it’s mating call and dance during the spring. However, these are non-migratory birds so they can be seen throughout the year. On Cortes Island, there have been local observations of their population declining. They’ve been seen and heard less and less. There has been a recent reported sighting of a female Sooty Grouse roosting on Easter Bluff. A grouse’s lifespan can be as long as 14 years, however, the average lifespan is about 3 years old.
Adult males will determine their own territory to roam in. Their territory and mating ritual consists of them making deep, low sounds that have been reported to sound like someone blowing on the open spout of a jug. They will perform short flights and flap their wings and fanning their tail feathers. During their peak performances, they will expose bare circular patches of skin located at the base of their necks on either side. A female will build her nest in a shallow hole, typically under the overhang of a shrub or a pile of logs. Here, she will lay about 5 to 10 eggs that are well camouflaged with a creamy base colour and brown speckles. Once hatched, she and the chicks will roam about in more open areas – such as old cut blocks or burned forests – to forage for food like berries, plants and insects. The female Sooty Grouse is highly protective of her eggs and her young, so be careful!
The status of Sooty Grouse is determined to be at risk.
Identification – what to look for:
- Small head
- Thick, stout legs
- Dark brown-grey feathers
- Long dark tail with a light gray band on the tip
- They have a bare, yellow-orange patch (air sack) at the base of their neck with white feathers circling it
- Red or orange feathers that look like eyebrows
- Brown speckled colouring
- Darker tail than the male
- Juveniles: look similar to the females
Where are they found?
- They can be found along the Pacific West Coast all the way down to Southern California
- They prefer forested areas, specifically lowland forests and well-developed forests that contain herbaceous, shrub and grass layers
- In the summer they can be found in mixed deciduous and coniferous forests and in winter prefer to stay in only coniferous forests
- Brooding females and females with chicks prefer open areas, such as burned areas or cleared areas for better foraging
- Occasionally they can be found in high elevation areas
- They nest on the ground in shallow holes that they line with leaves and feathers
- They do not survive well in planted forests (due to the trees all being the same age); they thrive in old growth forests (which contain lots of diverse plants and trees)
- They are one of the largest grouse in North America
- Males will make a deep, loud mating call that sounds like someone is blowing into the top spout of a jug, usually from the top of a very tall tree
- Females are extremely protective of their nests and young – so don’t get too close!
- In the winter they can survive on just fern needles
Video: Territorial and Mating Dance
Video: Female with Chicks
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: More Identification Information
Information on Blue Grouse (Sooty Grouse are a Blue Grouse subspecies)
Audubon: Guide to North American Birds: Sooty Grouse
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Friends of Cortes Island Society (FOCI) is a charitable organization that has been active for over 25 years. Our organization exists to monitor and preserve the health of local ecosystems, and to provide educational programs that foster a greater understanding of the natural environment. Through all of our projects, we work to promote environmental integrity through community responsibility.