The Western Capercaillie (henceforth referred to as capercaillie) has a wide distribution, ranging from western Europe to eastern Siberia. While the northern and eastern European boreal forests are almost continuously occupied by capercaillie, the western and central European populations are highly fragmented. The populations in central Europe are restricted to montane areas, whereas the northern populations also occur in lowland areas.
Population Size and Trends in Europe
The population declines in western and central Europe have resulted in local extinctions and isolation of remaining populations. Although their numbers are decreasing over the entire range, the species is considered Least Concern by the IUCN, due to its extremely large range and high population numbers. Only the Cantabrian subspecies (T. u. cantabricus) is considered Endangered due to its small, fragmented range and rapid decline in numbers. The capercaillie is considered threatened in many of the western and central European countries and is, therefore, present in many national Red Books.
Habitat and Ecology
Although capercaillies occur in many different forest types, they are considered a typical species of boreal climax forests. Their primary habitat is considered to be a mosaic dominated by old growth, natural forests, mixed with bogs and younger successional stages. Nevertheless, capercaillies can also occur in production forests if the vegetation structure is suitable. In uninfluenced old growth forest, a patchiness caused by natural disturbances, such as insect outbreaks, snow break and wind throw, creates this mosaic. In managed forests, the forest use can also favour structures necessary for capercaillies. Modern, so called “close to nature” forestry, with single log use, is considered negative for capercaillie habitat, because it favours forests with high canopy cover. Capercaillies generally prefer forests dominated by coniferous tree species, with moderate canopy cover and open structures. Therefore, traditional intensive use of forests, including small clear cuts and litter raking can provide high quality habitats for capercaillies. Throughout the year, capercaillies use a relatively large area (>150 ha) and, therefore, are dependent on large patches of suitable forest. Capercaillie forests have rich ground vegetation dominated by ericaceous shrubs such as bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus). This rich ground vegetation hosts a wide range of invertebrates, which is perfect food for chicks. In summer, the adults feed on the leaves, buds, flowers and fruits of many different plants. In winter, they rely almost exclusively on conifer needles. Whereas most capercaillie populations are occurring in coniferous forests, some use different habitats. The sub-species occurring in the Spanish Cantabrian mountains (T. u. cantabricus) lives in purely deciduous forests. In winter they feed on buds and leaves of evergreen deciduous trees such as holly (Ilex aquifolium).
Hunting and Cultural Importance
Due to its large size and impressive mating display in spring, capercaillie hunting has a long history. In central Europe, capercaillie hunting was mainly reserved for aristocrats interested in collecting trophies, while in their north-eastern range capercaillies are mainly hunted for food and sport. Since the 1970s, capercaillie hunting has been either restricted or banned all over western and central Europe. However, in most areas, hunting is not considered to be the main cause of decline, and can even provide incentive for active habitat preservation by hunters and forest managers.
Worldwide, there are still high numbers of capercaillie, but the general trend is decreasing populations over their entire range. The major cause for this decline is habitat degradation and habitat loss. Because capercaillies are habitat specialists, they are highly sensitive to changes in the forest structure. As such, the way in which forests are used and managed has a great impact on habitat quality. In many eastern European countries and Russia, the accessibility to remote old growth forests is increasing, often leading to intensive clear cutting and a decline in capercaillie numbers. Forestry in many central European countries aims to increase the volume of standing timber in the forest, leading to dense forests and low habitat quality for capercaillies. Furthermore, capercaillies are highly sensitive to human disturbance. As such, human activity in their habitat effectively reduces the habitat quality. Activities such as hiking and skiing can, therefore, pose a serious threat to local capercaillie populations. Other threats to capercaillies include air pollution, resulting in soil eutrophication and associated changes to the ground vegetation, increased predation, overhunting and collisions with fences and power lines. Small isolated populations are vulnerable to extinction due to chance events or loss of genetic variation. Although it has been suggested that climate change might negatively affect capercaillie populations, this has not yet been thoroughly studied. Studies on the development of wind turbines in capercaillie habitats show a reduced use of the wind turbine area by capercaillies post-construction, as well as collisions of capercaillies with wind turbines.
Current Conservation Measures
Due to its size and displaying behaviour, people have been fascinated by capercaillies for centuries. This fascination is reflected in the names of bars and hotels, the logos of companies and the effort put forth to keep local populations from extinction. People in many countries have instigated measures to curtail the declining numbers of capercaillies. In some areas where capercaillies have been extirpated, reintroduction programmes were started to bring them back. Unfortunately, the large majority of reintroduction programmes were unsuccessful.
The capercaillie is currently one of the most strictly protected species in Europe. On an international level, it is protected through the EU Birds Directive (Annex 1 “Specially Protected Species”). This means that, by law, suitable habitat areas must be set aside as bird sanctuaries, not to be disturbed or degraded.
At a national level, the protection status of the capercaillie can vary from country to country, depending on population size.
In Germany, the capercaillie is protected through Section 7 of the Bundes-Naturschutzgesetzes (BNatschG - the State Nature Protection Law) as a “specially protected species”. BNatschG Section 44 forbids the killing or disturbance of capercaillies, in order to maintain the conservation status of the local population. Damaging capercaillie habitat is also forbidden. Section 45 of BNatschG allows some exceptions if compelling arguments are made in the interest of the public. However, no exceptions are granted if there are reasonable alternatives to actions that might threaten the status or potential recovery of a population. A large part of the capercaillie population range in the Black Forest is designated as a Special Protected Area (SPA). This area is within the framework of protected areas for capercaillie under Natura2000, and is committed to securing a favourable conservation status for the species and avoiding deterioration of population status.
In Austria, the conservation status of the capercaillie is overall positive. However, in the state of Styria capercaillies are considered threatened and are included on the Red List. As such, there exists an amendment to the 2012 game law stating that “deliberate disturbance with significant effect, during breeding and brooding is forbidden to all”.
Please click here for more information on and links to conservation programmes for capercaillies. If you have additional information on management or plans for capercaillies, please feel free to contact us and we can add your information to the list.