The Fool Hen


The spruce grouse is sometimes called the ‘fool hen’, because it isn’t much afraid of humans. Knowing what we now know about humans, I think such behaviour really is foolish, although it’s silly to blame the spruce grouse for its genetic disposition. Most wildlife that has little contact with humans aren’t too afraid of us, because for tens of thousands, often millions of years, we weren’t much of a threat. Only for a few thousand years, and sometimes only for the past couple of hundred years, have humans become something every living thing should fear. But in the evolutionary scheme of things, a thousand years is akin to the blink of an eye. Not a lot of time to adapt. Plenty of time to go extinct.

Fortunately, the spruce grouse is in no way threatened with extinction, although it hasn’t yet adapted to the threat of humans, unlike most of the members of the grouse family. What’s saved it is the fact it is found across a huge swath of North America, preferring northern conifer dominated forests where human populations are low and thinly distributed. Plus, it’s not a colonial bird, not the best tasting and has a reasonably high reproductive rate. All in all, spruce grouse populations are healthy. They are included with ruffed grouse in Ontario insofar as daily and possession bag limits for hunters are concerned (5/day; 15 in possession).

Interestingly, while it’s called the spruce grouse, it is actually much more closely associated with jack pines. During the winter, the needles of jack pine are the staple diet.

I haven’t seen any near our house for a couple of years now. I haven’t shot them, and that’s about all I know. Our property is not the best spruce grouse habitat, though, as it’s mostly young mixed woods with a prominent poplar component, habitat more suitable for ruffed grouse.

Dr. Kandyd Szuba, who studied spruce grouse in eastern Ontario for her MSc., found that in northeastern Ontario, there could be as many as 80 spruce grouse per square kilometer– before the nesting season! This was in prime jack pine habitat – in mature, lowland black spruce, there were seldom more than 10 birds/km2 before nesting season. Still, that’s quite a few.

Apparently, egg eating red squirrels seem to be the biggest threat to nesting spruce grouse, with northern goshawks being the biggest predatory threat to juveniles and adult birds. There are a lot – I repeat, a lot – of red squirrels on our property. Plus I do see goshawks on occasion. Usually I see them swooping after Lil’s pigeons. Some years the goshawks have taken quite a few pigeons. Maybe they took some spruce grouse, too.

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