Grouse hold up hikers in Baxter State Park

Wildlife gets the right of way, but what if wildlife just won’t budge?

I was hiking the other day, as I tend to do, and stumbled across a group of beautiful birds that looked like partridge. Actually, two of my hiking buddies saw them first. They were hard to miss, being in the middle of the smooth, gravel trail. But they weren’t partridge — no they were not. And they wouldn’t move. So we couldn’t move.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. Spruce grouse block the hiking path on South Brother Mountain in Baxter State Park on Aug. 11, 2012.

They were spruce grouse! The spruce grouse lives in coniferous forests throughout much of Canada and portions of the northern United States. Why coniferous forests? Well, they like to nom on (eat) the needles of spruces and other conifers. We were near the top of a mountain in Baxter State Park when we stumbled across our little flock.

When I first saw them, I thought, ‘Wild chickens!’ And they do look a bit like chickens, with their plump bodies and beautiful feather patterning.

I’m always hesitant to approach wildlife too closely. When I see a woodpecker or a hare, I pull out my long lens and take photos at a good distance — without scaring them. But the spruce grouse didn’t seem to mind as we inched closer. They acted a lot like domestic chickens.

I liked them so much, I looked up some information about them.

Spruce grouse nest in a depression the ground, lined with conifer needles and feathers. The site always has overhead cover, often at the base of a tree. They have historically lived in forests showing fire-related patchwork of various stages of regeneration. Timber harvesting can produce similar patterns, but in many places, habitat loss has led directly to the dramatic reduction or elimination of spruce grouse populations.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. Spruce grouse on South Brother Mountain in Baxter State Park on Aug. 11, 2012.

For that very reason, spruce grouse are illegal to hunt in Maine. Hunters must be able to distinguish between ruffed grouse (partridge) and spruce grouse. A helpful resource can be found at But basically, it says that the two birds behave and look different:

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. Spruce grouse lies down in a hiking path on South Brother Mountain in Baxter State Park on Aug. 11, 2012.

Spruce grouse generally act very tame and may allow a hunter to approach within a few feet — behavior we delighted in while hiking. I was able to take some great photos because they didn’t seem to fear us. Sometimes, they will crouch low to the ground when approached — we also noticed that! I almost stepped on one because it was burrowing into the gravel and blended right in. And when the spruce grouse does decide to move away, they will often just run a short distance or fly to a nearby tree — and that’s exactly what they did on the trail. I felt like they were leading us on the hike because they would simply walk ahead of us.

A ruffed grouse, on the other hand, will usually perk its head up like a chicken when someone approaches. And if you get too close, it will flush and take flight. It may also lower its head, with neck extended, and run for cover.

But if you aren’t trying to interact with the bird (but rather, shoot it), you will have to be able to tell them apart by physical characteristics. You can look at the bird’s tail. The spruce grouse has tail feathers with red-brown tips, and their tails lack the broad black band that the ruffed grouse has.

The male spruce grouse are slate gray and black, a lot darker than the ruffed grouse, but the female spruce grouse is gray and brown, which may look similar to the color of a ruffed grouse. Just remember that a spruce grouse lacks the band across the tail, as well as two other characteristics of the ruffed grouse: black ruff feathers on the side of the neck and small feathers pointing up from the top of the head.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. A male spruce grouse perches beside a hiking path on South Brother Mountain in Baxter State Park on Aug. 11, 2012.

Also, male spruce grouse have a characteristic un-feathered red patch of skin above the eye. This bright red skin is called a “comb.” When we ran into the grouse on the trail, I took several photos of the largest grouse of the flock, which had a beautiful, big red comb. I thought it was the mother and that the smaller birds were her babies. Now I know that couldn’t have been the case. It was a male!


Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. Spruce grouse on South Brother Mountain in Baxter State Park on Aug. 11, 2012, is identifiable by the red skin over his eye, which the female does not have.

As we tried to inch past them in the trail, (a thick forest of stunted spruce on either side of the trail deterred us from bushwhacking around them), I noticed that he jumped up on a log and puffed up its feather. Apparently, that’s a territorial display — fanning and sweeping the trail. We didn’t alarm it enough for it to clap its wings though.  Eventually, they moved to the side of the trail and hid in the stunted conifers as we passed by and made our way down the mountain.

Credit: Much of the information about spruce grouse I gathered from, an extremely useful and reliable site by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at