Greater-prairie Chicken

Grouse of Wisconsin (4 Species to Know)

Grouse are a particular group of game birds that are medium to large in size and are chicken-like in appearance. In North America, Grouse have traditionally been hunted as a source of food, but to birders, they are desirable to find because of their unique qualities and beauty. While some grouse species are numerous, they can still prove to be elusive and it’s always an adventure to try and find them. The most exciting time of the year to see Grouse is in the spring, when males form in a group to perform competitive displays and courtship rituals in an attempt to find a female. This annual occurrence is called a “lek.” In Wisconsin, you can purchase a spot to view this ritual with Greater Prairie Chickens in the spring. Click here to learn more.

In the Badger State, there are four native species of grouse that can be found in the wild. Some of these species are fairly rare and even coveted by birders. Below is the list of all four species, with photos and information about their habits, how to identify them, and where to find them.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse (Pat Matthews Photo)
Identification

Ruffed Grouse male and females look similar in coloration with some slight differences. Overall, both males and females have a light colored chest and underside, with dark and light brown barring and speckling. Their backs and wings are shades of brown with some white and darker markings mixed in. Ruffed Grouse have a crest on their head and during the breeding season, males will show black neck feathers as a display in addition to fanning their tails in a similar manor to a peacock.

Range

Ruffed Grouse can be found in the northern forests of North America. Their range encompasses most of Southern and Western Canada up into Alaska. In the United States, Ruffed Grouse live in the Midwest around the Great Lakes, in the Northeast, and some of the states in the Northwest such as Montana and Idaho, among others.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Ruffed Grouse eat mostly plant matter with just a small amount of their diet consisting of insects. Typical fare for the Ruffed Grouse is leaves, buds, ferns, grass, acorns, fruits, and twigs of birch and aspen trees.

Where to Find this Bird

Ruffed Grouse can be very difficult to see as they live in dense woodlands and move very deliberately. Some of the best times to see them is during winter when they stand out more than in months when there isn’t snow. Another way to see Ruffed Grouse is by driving forest roads where they can sometimes be seen on the edge of the tree line of walking on the road, or by visiting a lek in the spring.

In Wisconsin, the north woods of the Nicolet National Forest can be a great place to find Ruffed Grouse. They can be found in many of the wooded counties in the northern part of the state.

Spruce Grouse

Male Spruce Grouse
Female Spruce Grouse (Maurine Whalen Photo)
Spruce Grouse Chick (Jacob W. Frank Photo)
Identification

Male Spruce Grouse have a gray head, brown sides and wings, a black throat, white speckling and striping on their underside as well as white markings on their face. They also have a noticeable bit of bright red above their eye. Females are a mottled gray, brown, and tan with barring on their underside.

Range

Spruce Grouse do not migrate and inhabit most of Canada and Alaska year round. They also live in some parts of the United States including northern Michigan, Minnesota, Maine, Wisconsin, New York, Washington, Montana, Oregon, Idaho, and some of the states in the northeast.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Spruce Grouse have a somewhat unique diet eating mostly conifer needles. They typically prefer the younger needles and will forage high up in trees as well as on the ground. Spruce Grouse also eat other plants as well as insects and even fungi.

Where to Find this Bird

Spruce Grouse can be most easily seen when they venture out onto road sides. They are typically extremely tame around people but can be hard to spot if they are concealed in the understory due to their impressive camouflage.

In Wisconsin, Forest County and other areas in the Northwoods are the go to areas in order to find this species. They can be very hit or miss, but driving the scenic roads of Wisconsin’s boreal forests in the best way to encounter a Spruce Grouse.

Greater Prairie Chicken

Male Greater Prairie Chicken (Alan Schmierer Photo)
Female Greater Prairie Chicken (Dave Menke Photo, CC by 2.0)
Identification

Greater Prairie Chickens (also known as Pinnated Grouse) can be identified by their tan and brown barred bodies, small heads, short tails, and light colored throats. Males have golden yellow above their eyes and when mating, puff out yellow-orange throat sacks on their neck. Females look very similar to the males but with less noticeable gold coloration on their face and minimal orange coloration.

Range

The Greater Prairie Chicken once had a range that encompassed most of the Plains states as well as the Great Lakes states. While they do still reside in these areas, their range has condensed to specific areas. Greater Prairie Chickens can still be found in large portions of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and to a lesser extent in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Greater Prairie Chickens feed on seeds, grains, fruits, and insects. They can be seen foraging in small to large groups in open fields where they can sometimes be very difficult to pick out.

Where to Find this Bird

The easiest time of the year to find Greater Prairie Chickens is in winter when they can be seen foraging in fields where they stand out more clearly against the snow. They can also be seen in early morning, roosting in trees. The other time of year they can be found is during spring when they lek, and males put on displays for females.

In Wisconsin, Portage County is the place to go for Greater Prairie Chicken sightings. To be more specific, the Buena Vista Grasslands have the greatest number of these birds in the state.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Male Sharp-tailed Grouse (Alan Schmierer Photo)
Female Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tom Koerner Photo)
A Group of Sharp-tailed Grouse Roosting in a Tree (Dan Svingen Photo)
Identification

Sharp-tailed Grouse have lighter undersides with brown and tan speckling. They have more brown and tan coloration on their wings, back, and head, with white mixed in making up an intricate pattern. Males have yellow-orange above their eye and show purple throat sacks while performing their mating display. Females have a similar look to the male but with less color near the face. Sharp-tailed Grouse get their name from their pointy looking tail which is very triangular looking due to the center tail feathers being the longest. They will often times hold these unique tails up in the air making them even more noticeable.

Range

Sharp-tailed Grouse can be found in different parts of Northwestern North America. They are nonmigratory and live year round in much of Alaska, Central and Southern Canada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, and Minnesota. Sharp-tailed Grouse also live in some of the Great Lakes States as well as other Great Plains states in smaller numbers.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Sharp-tailed Grouse eat a wide variety of food items, most of which are plants. This species partakes in grains, seeds, grasses, buds and fruits. When available, Sharp-tailed Grouse will also eat insects. Foraging is typically done on the ground but these birds will also feed in trees. While feeding, Sharp-tailed Grouse are reminiscent of chickens as they walk around and peck.

Where to Find this Bird

Sharp-tailed Grouse live in a variety of habitats from Boreal woods to pine barrens. The easiest way to find this species is to search out an area where they lek during the spring, where they are quite noticeable and boisterous.

In Wisconsin, the Northwestern part of the state is the best place to find Sharp-tailed Grouse. However, they are deemed a sensitive species and therefore eBird data is hidden, making them difficult to find without knowing someone who has an idea of where they are lekking in spring.

Summary

Grouse can be quite difficult to find, but they are certainly fascinating to see in the wild. Wisconsin has a nice variety of grouse species to find, and we hope that this article helped shed some light on how to find and ID them.

If you enjoyed this post please give it a like and a comment. Also be sure to check out the Badgerland Birding Youtube Channel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s