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Spruce grouse, the fool's hen

Archetype. I thought that was a word reserved for folks with an appetite for details — engineers, designers and the like. My wife, an interior designer, might employ that word on me: "Frank Lloyd Wright's furniture was the archetype in the Prairie Style movement."

You bet.

But wingshooters can use the word, too. Spruce grouse are the archetype "fool hen," a term oft-applied to any forest grouse species in the West not a ruffed. I think fool hen is often misapplied.

Hunting blues, you never know which bird you'll get: timid and tough, flushing well ahead of you or a foolish bird that seems to lack all intelligence. When is comes to spruce grouse, there's no debate, they are the quintessential fool hen.

Spruce grouse are a bird of the north wilderness, making a home in bogs and tangled swamps near the tundra, and the dark and moist spruce forests. They range from Alaska, across Canada to Maine. The bird also occurs in parts of Washington, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, and sporadically in other northern-tier states.

Spruce grouse make a decent living, eating a variety of foods like berries, seeds, and insects. In winter, they resort to spruce buds and pine needles, as do other forest grouse. But curiously, spruce grouse make the diet shift earlier than other grouse, and do so even in the absence of heavy snow.

In the spring, spruce grouse start courting. Like ruffed grouse, spruce grouse drum for display, but the act is not nearly as involved. And unlike ruffed grouse, the spruce grouse drums aloft in a tree. The drumming sounds like faint distant thunder, even up close. He will flutter to the ground and strut like a turkey around a hen. To draw more attention to himself, he raps his bill on rocks or trees. If not impressed, he goes back up a tree, about 20 feet above ground and drums some more.

The hens build nests well concealed on the ground amid the tangle of bushes near bogs. The nests are not very intricate, consisting mostly of moss and grass and a few feathers. In May, hens lay up to 16 cinnamon and buff-colored egg marked with blotches of chocolate for concealment. The hen alone attends the eggs and brood that hatches in about 17 days. As another method of concealment, the hens do not walk away from the nest, but instead fly away to feed. Same for the return. They fly as close as possible to the nest, instead of walking so as to prevent predators from finding her brood.

As soon as the down dries, the young chicks are able to stay up with mom, walking over the forest floor. The chicks are able to fly when they are about five inches long. The young, unlike the parent birds, are adept at concealment. When the young are agitated, they hide instead of taking a cavalier attitude like the birds their senior.

While spruce grouse are certainly a beautifully dressed bird, its chief characteristic is its overconfidence or unsuspicious nature. Whichever may be true, it borders on outright stupidity. Spruce grouse are truly a wilderness bird, and in terms of their conservation status, they are secure. The greatest threat to spruce grouse is extensive logging and fire suppression. Clear-cut logging can benefit spruce grouse if the cuts are small in size. Forest fires can act similar to clear cuts in that they create a mosaic of pioneering vegetation following a burn.

Spruce grouse are abundant over most of their range with the exception of habitats near human settlement. Owing to their tameness, spruce grouse are readily depleted by man when the two live in close proximity.

An ornithologist, Lucien Turner, employed by the US Army Signal Corps in 1886, wrote of the spruce grouse's tameness: "I once shot 11 and did not move a yard in distance to do so. The people of Labrador employ a method which they term 'slipping,' i.e, slipping a noose on a long pole over their heads. I have seen birds push this noose aside with their bills without changing their position."

An agitated spruce grouse may flush from the ground, but only fly a few feet and alight in a tree. Acting miffed, they swing their heads about as if trying to discover what disturbed them.

For sporting quality, spruce grouse are sorely lacking. Most birds are taken incidently to hunting big game or ruffed grouse. What expertise does it take rake a gawking bird out of a tree with a pole? I don't know, but spruce grouse are on my to-do list.

Teddy Roosevelt posited same, writing on his hunting experiences in western Montana: "The mountain men call this bird the fool-hen; and most certainly it deserves the name. They are marvelously tame and stupid. A man who has played much base-ball need never use a gun when after spruce grouse."

Spruce grouse are the archetype fool hen.