Grouse differ from other fowl due to their feathered feet and nostrils. As such, they are well-equipped for extreme weather conditions in winter, or in mountainous areas. Aside from the chicks, which, as in most bird species, primarily eat insects, these birds eat mostly plants. In summer, they eat a wide spectrum of buds, leaves and berries. In contrast, food intake in winter is relatively restricted, with the buds of deciduous trees and the needles of coniferous trees being the primary food source. In order to better utilize these nutrient-poor foods, grouse purposely take-in small stones – so-called “gizzard stones” or “gastroliths” – which help break down food during digestion. A very hardy digestive system, together with an inactive winter lifestyle, enables the animals to survive extreme winter conditions.
In many grouse species, the roosters gather in spring in a so-called “lek” or courtship ground. The males put on a striking and noisy display in order to attract hens; the hens then choose with whom they wish to pair. However, there are some species that are monogamous and do not exhibit lekking behavior. Grouse nest in a depression in the ground; the chicks are precocial, meaning they are active soon after hatching. The hen leads the chicks while they search for food, and protects them from bad weather conditions.
Of the 19 species in this subfamily, three are classified by the “IUCN Red List” as vulnerable or endangered worldwide. However, at the national and local levels many species of the family are in decline, which could lead to local extinctions. The decline is the result of various factors, but is generally considered to be the result of habitat degradation and loss. As such, in many countries protection programs and action plans have been established.
Because Grouse are a beloved animal associated with high biodiversity, they are often called “Flagship species”, and are used for publicity and promotion to protect certain habitats.
The following will present you with a brief overview of the European grouse species, and their often greatly differing ways of life.