The black grouse occurs across northern Eurasia, with a continuous distribution in the boreal forest from Scandinavia to south-eastern Siberia. The western and southern parts of the range are fragmented, as major range contractions and declines occurred there during the 20th century.
Population Size and Trends in Europe
Population densities may strongly fluctuate, particularly in the northern parts of the range where 4-10 year population cycles are common. Besides these short-term fluctuations, black grouse populations are more or less stable throughout the contiguous range, and are not particularly endangered. In western and central Europe, however, black grouse numbers have declined rapidly this century, particularly since the 1970s. Many lowland populations have disappeared, and the remaining ones are mostly small (<100-200 birds) and isolated. In central Europe, the largest and still mostly stable population occurs in the Alps. This species is listed by the IUCN as Least Concern.
Habitat and Ecology
The black grouse is one of the grouse species with the broadest set of habitat requirements. In the boreal regions, the black grouse is a bird of forest edge habitats and the early stages of forest succession. Outside the boreal forest, black grouse are found in structurally similar habitats such as moorland and heaths, young and open regenerating conifer forests (e.g. after disturbances such as fire, storms or clear-cutting), treeline habitats and alpine pastures when in mountainous areas, fields and meadows, and military training grounds. Black grouse generally avoid closed tree cover. The birds feed opportunistically but selectively on a variety of food items. During summer, abundant invertebrates, preferably larvae and ants, are essential for the chicks. The adults feed on the leaves, buds, flowers and fruits of many different plants during spring and summer. In winter they rely on shrubs and the needles or twigs of various tree species.
Hunting and Cultural Importance
Throughout most of its range, the black grouse has a long history as a game bird and is, therefore, of great cultural and - regionally-varying - economic importance. After willow ptarmigan and hazel grouse, the black grouse is the most frequent grouse species found in the game bag of Scandinavian and Russian hunters. Recently, trophy-hunting by westerners is gaining increasing economic importance in eastern Europe. In central Europe, trophy-hunting used to be the black grouse hunter’s major motivation, and males were shot in spring during the lek. This kind of hunting carries a high chance of disturbing the social system at the lek, and may result in reduced reproductive success.
A major threat for the black grouse is habitat degradation. In western and central Europe, habitat loss occurs due to changes in human land-use, particularly the intensification of agriculture. Drainage and destruction of moorland, and fertilisation or afforestation of heathland and sheep pastures are also common causes of the deterioration of black grouse habitats. In western and central Europe, fragmentation of habitats has resulted in isolated populations. Small populations are generally vulnerable and show a high risk of extinction due to chance events, such as unsuitable weather. Fragmentation also leads to increased predation pressure. Area-wide vaccinations of foxes against rabies, conducted since the 1980s, have also contributed to an increase in predation pressure due to higher survival rates in foxes. In most regions of Europe with small black grouse populations, predation is considered the major proximate threat to the species. Human disturbance can also influence populations negatively; activities such as hiking and skiing can pose a serious threat to local black grouse populations. Collisions with fences and power lines may also kill significant numbers of black grouse, and in some countries, overhunting may threaten populations. Since the 1970s, black grouse hunting was banned in some central European countries, but these bans did not reverse the negative population trends.
Although it has been suggested that climate change might negatively affect black grouse populations, this has not yet been thoroughly studied.
Current Conservation Measures
Habitat management is considered the most important conservation measure for black grouse. In most regions, the major challenge is to integrate land-use practices with the species’ habitat requirements. Also of great importance are programs initiated in many European countries helping to limit the effects of human disturbance on the black grouse. Major approaches include public awareness campaigns, re-routing hiking and ski-trail networks, as well as the designation of black grouse core areas closed to public. Captive breeding and release projects have been undertaken, but have not been successful.
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