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In this episode of the podcast, we’re talking about spruce grouse with biologist Bailey Petersen of the Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources, and Kevin Kossowan, filmmaker, friend and fellow spruce grouse hunter.
Every episode of Hunt Gather Talk digs deep into the life, habits, hunting, lore, myth and of course prepping and cooking of a particular animal. Expect episodes on pheasants, rabbits, every species of quail, every species of grouse, wild turkeys, rails, woodcock, pigeons and doves, and huns. Thanks go out to Filson and Hunt to Eat for sponsoring the show!
Spruce grouse get an undeservedly bad rap, both as hunting quarry and as food. We bust some myths in this episode, as well as go into depth about why this bird is so successful in its native boreal forests.
For more information on these topics, here are some helpful links:
- A cool web page all about spruce grouse, from Cornell University.
- An article about the research Bailey is doing, along with a good picture of spruce grouse poop — a great way to find the birds when you are hunting them!
- A cool article on hunting spruce grouse from Project Upland.
- Where spruce grouse are found, according to eBird.
- How to roast a spruce grouse, or at least how I do it.
I am bringing back Hunt Gather Talk with the hopes that your generosity can help keep it going season after season. Think of this like public radio, only with hunting and fishing and wild food and stuff. No, this won’t be a “pay-to-play” podcast, so you don’t necessarily have to chip in. But I am asking you to consider it. Every little bit helps to pay for editing, servers, and, frankly to keep the lights on here. Thanks in advance for whatever you can contribute!
As a service to those with hearing issues, or for anyone who would rather read our conversation than hear it, here is the transcript of the show. Enjoy!
Hank Shaw: Welcome back to the Hunt Gather Talk podcast, sponsored by Filson and Hunt To Eat. I am your host, Hank Shaw. Today, we’re going to talk about spruce grouse. Yes, fool hands. One of the most maligned, unjustly, I might add, species of grouse there is in the world. These are birds that are perfectly adapted for the boreal forest, and it is an environment that not everybody gets to go to and it is a very, very special bird.
But today we have on the show, two people who are very familiar with spruce grouse, Bailey Petersen, who works for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, she is a spruce grouse biologist, as well as my friend, Kevin Kossowan from the Canadian TV show From The Wild. Kevin and I have hunted spruce grouse more than once. And both of them are joining us to dispel some myths and to shed some information on this pretty amazing bird. Without further ado, why don’t you guys introduce yourselves, and Bailey you go first.
Bailey Petersen: All right, hi, thank you so much for having me. I’m calling in here from Northeastern, Minnesota up in Two Harbors where my career is as our assistant area wildlife manager for the north shore of Minnesota, so the counties kind of bordering Lake Superior. Outside of my professional life, my passion is upland hunting, particularly grouse hunting, and up here, we’re lucky enough to have spruce grouse as a component of that part of where we live.
Hank Shaw: So you’re actually a biologist who works on spruce grouse, right?
Bailey Petersen: Yeah, so I’m not a research biologist, but I’m a habitat manager for the work area here where I live and work. But I do spruce grouse surveys every spring. As the snow starts to melt we do a survey for spruce grouse now, that’s just a couple of years old. And then I also help with a spruce grouse research project that we’re doing right now and we can get into that if you want to. It’s a pretty cool research project where I actually get to use my pointing dogs to help us find the birds for this study.
Hank Shaw: Cool, we will definitely get into that in a little bit, Kevin.
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah, hey Hank, nice to chat with you. Kevin Kossowan, I’m a filmmaker out in Alberta, Canada, I produced a couple of wild food series one that, Hank’s been on a couple of times called From The Wild and we have chased spruce grouse on that series a couple of times. I also produce a foraging series with Les Stroud called Wild Harvest. It’s coming on PBS this fall. I kind of fall into the category of a filmmaker guy who happens to know more about wild food stuff than most people.
Hank Shaw: And I like to describe Kevin as my Canadian doppelganger, although we don’t actually look alike because he has very, very impressive hair.
Kevin Kossowan: Thanks but [inaudible 00:02:53].
Hank Shaw: Mostly because we’ve been kind of doing the more or less the same thing. Well, God, is it maybe 14 years now.
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah, I remember prior to you doing any food writing at all, so that would have been 2005, 2006, somewhere in there.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, so it’s been a long time. So far it’s only been me going to Canada, which is fine by me, having adventures before Miss ‘Rona has curtailed our ability to do that this year, but we will pick it up again whenever all this weirdness is passed through.
Let’s talk about the bird. I think there’s a bunch of myths involved as spruce grouse and I think there’s a bunch of really interesting things about this particular bird. And so, let me just start off with a bit of an overview and then I want to hear you guys bring this in to flush it out of it. But the thing about grouse in North America is that, it’s like a chicken for every environment in North America. So no matter where you go there is going to be some sort of gallinaceous bird.
So in the hotter, drier parts of the world, basically the American South and Southwest, that is where the quail lives. You can think of a quail is kind of a micro grouse, but North of that area, you start to get all of these different grouse species. So you have everything from the Sagebrush Sea, where you have the Sage grouse to the Great Plains of the North America, where you have both the prairie chicken and the sharp-tailed grouse. And then, in the East Coast, there used to be a grouse called a heath hen, but that thing went extinct over 100 years ago. And then there’s the grouse of the Northern forest. And the grouse of the Northern forest is the spruce grouse.
He shares his habitat with ruffed grouse, who will occupy a slightly warmer, more deciduous-based forest. And the blue grouse, who’s going to also be in conifers, but he’s also going to be in a bit warmer territory. So the fascinating thing about the world of grouse is that, pick an environment and there’s either an actual grouse or a quail that fits that environment that’s native to here. So given that as a kind of a rough 30,000-foot overview, tell me about what makes the spruce grouse’s environment special. And let’s start with Bailey.
Bailey Petersen: That’s a really good question. And in some ways, it’s around my part anyway, where we’re kind of at the edge of their… Southern edge of their range and Southern edge of the boreal forest and the Canadian shield is that their cover sometimes isn’t special to them at all. In fact, we’re seeing a lot of overlap of ruffed grouse and spruce grouse in the same covers in this area, which is an interesting component to the survey that we just started, it’s a pellet survey. So we walk around in the spring usually with snowshoes as the snow starts to melt, and we can find all the snow roost sites, and then all the sites where pellets were shed maybe when a bird was roosting in the trees and were finding a lot of ruffed grouse overlap into what we were considering ideal or prime spruce grouse cover.
This is sort of just a sidebar, but it’s a new component to maybe a study that we didn’t even know about on whether ruffed grouse encroaching into spruce grouse range would be unfavorable to this, spruce grouse. But anyway, spruce grouse cover over here in Northern Minnesota is going to look like the kind of impenetrable forest that you have really no inclination to walk through. You can’t keep your hat on. You can’t keep your glasses on. It’s thick, thick, thick spruce and pine that is just not much fun to walk through, that’s prime spruce grouse cover, that’s what you’re going to find in there. There’s not a whole lot of other things that choose to live there.
Hank Shaw: That’s really interesting, so it sounds like kind of a conifer version of where woodcock like to hang out.
Bailey Petersen: Yeah. That’s a good way to describe it.
Hank Shaw: Because the old joke with woodcock is that if you can throw your hat in hits the ground, there’s no woodcock around.
Bailey Petersen: Yeah, that’s right. And I mean, it makes sense from a concealment from above and for the spruce grouse, it’s also a concealment from below because when they’re up in their thick spruce, either in the canopy or the mid-level branches, it’s dang hard to see them.
Hank Shaw: So are they like old-growth, middle growth, young growth or all of the above?
Bailey Petersen: Oh, well they don’t have a preference for mature growth unless those trees happen to be very close together and still retain their lower-level branches. So they really do prefer that older-young stuff or just middle-aged stuff, I guess, is how I’d describe it. I don’t want to call them lazy because I don’t ever want to discredit them for any of their behaviors, but they do tend to just hop from the ground up the branches or hop from branch to branch. And that’s sort of how they get by and save a lot of energy.
Hank Shaw: I have heard that, of all birds that we hunt. They really, really, really don’t like flying.
Bailey Petersen: Yeah, which is interesting and maybe another thing that you were planning to get into later, but an anomaly of these birds, is that a lot of dark meat grouse, we say they have very dark meat because they fly a lot, but these birds rarely fly and they are of the dark meat variety.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, I mean, we’ll definitely get into that. One of the things you mentioned, and immediately, my ears pricked up because the time that we saw spruce grouse, Kevin and I, we were ruffed grouse hunting. So up in the boreal forest of Alberta, we saw them, I don’t know about side by side, but within a mile of each other, right Kevin?
Kevin Kossowan: Oh yeah, easy. And I was thinking the exact same thing that growing up, grouse hunting was the one thing I did regularly as a kid every fall with my dad and the spruce grouse and the ruffed grouse are absolutely intermingled. There seem to be a bit of no rhyme or reason when you might run into spruce grouse versus ruffed, but there was certainly kind of a like a 10 to one or 15 to one ratio of ruffed to spruce that you’d bumped into along the way.
I do agree that the kind of dense small caliper spruce tree scenario is where they like to live. But I’d also say that we’ve found ruffed kind of in that space. And the other thing is although kind of for context, I live in Edmonton here, we are near within an hour of a really large chunk of boreal forest where it gets really dense for the entire half of a very large province. So we have a lot of boreal forest here, and while I’ve seen spruce grouse there, I’ve also seen them on high altitude hikes in the Rockies. So I’ve kind of seeing them in both those spaces.
Hank Shaw: Out here in the West, and I count Alberta as the West, you see them mixing with both ruffies and with the blue grouse. And it’s just sort of depends on where you’re at and I’m trying to get a finger on, well, okay, so if there is a grouse for every environment, is this the two exist where the environments bleed into each other? And is there a spot say maybe in a deeper boreal forest where there’s only spruce grouse? You guys have any idea about that?
Kevin Kossowan: Ooh, well, I have been hunting moose so far back that the oil field guys only fly around in helicopters and don’t drive trucks anymore. And we went on one particular trip way back in the bush where — the singular bush you like to remind me, Hank — that we actually did run into almost exclusively spruce grouse, where just for one trip of two to three days, that’s pretty much all we saw. So I’d never really considered that as a thing. But now that you mentioned it that has occurred to me in the past.
Hank Shaw: How about you, Bailey.
Bailey Petersen: I’ve spent a little bit of time out in Western Montana, Northwestern Montana, West Glacier. And there, I’m seeing the Franklin’s variety of spruce grouse. And it’s in a lot of old burned-over areas where lodgepole is regenerating heavily. And I think just the nature of burned-over areas tend to invite the mix of multiple species. So regrowth is really attractive to a lot of different species and grouse included in that.
Here where we’ll find both is really on the edge and in the springtime, we will find, or I’ll hear male strumming when I’m in covers that are for the spruce grouse survey in particularly, but that survey is being done on transects. It’s being done in their covers in the woods, but it is off of roads just for ease of access. So I’m not deep into their spruce type covers so I can’t say that I’ve seen a lot for ruffed deep into their covers, but I think as you get more away from mixed cover and more into single conifer cover type, you’re going to end up with more spruce grouse.
Hank Shaw: And also the United States, I mean, I bet you, there’s only a few spots in the South of the border where it’s deep and dark enough and nasty enough just for this spruces. It’s my understanding that what you saw on that moose hunt, Kevin, is about right. So once you get super far North, but not quite to ptarmigan territory, if you can imagine sort of layers of color where there’ll be a mixed color of you give a color to ruffed grouse and give a color to spruce grouse, and that would mix kind of where we were hunting. And then you go a little farther North and it’s only the spruce grouse color. And then you go even farther North and then it starts to bleed with the willow ptarmigan as you start to go farther and farther towards the Arctic Circle. And then when you get really super far North, there’s no more spruce grouse anymore and it’s only ptarmigan.
Kevin Kossowan: Interesting, didn’t know that.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, and then the altitude thing, because blue grouse to my knowledge only live at altitude.
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah, and that’s a species I’ve never seen in my life, to be honest. I’ve never seen one here. I think we have them here.
Hank Shaw: You have them in Alberta.
Kevin Kossowan: I’ve never seen one, never seen one, not once.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, you’d know it too, because the thing about a blue grouse is like, “Look at that huge giant grouse. Oh my God.”
Kevin Kossowan: Oh, I’ve heard about them. I’ve heard about them plenty, but I’ve just never been on one.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, so spruce grouse, Bailey, correct me if I’m wrong are generally about a pound and a half more or less?
Bailey Petersen: Yeah, so I was trying to prepare myself for this discussion here. And I was doing a little pre-reading, there’s a old book called Full Hand written by an author or researcher out of Michigan from the 80s. And in there it was a photograph of spruce grouse taken on the Northern edge and the Southern edge of their range. And on the Northern edge, they can be about twice as big up into that two pounds.
Kevin Kossowan: No way, that’s amazing.
Hank Shaw: That’s a big ass spruce grouse.
Kevin Kossowan: No, way I can’t believe that.
Bailey Petersen: Pretty hefty, and then down here on the Southern edge of the range, they’d be quite a bit smaller.
Kevin Kossowan: Sorry to cut you off, but I find their body size where we hunt kind of in the lower range of the boreal but they’re smaller body even than the ruffed grouse, I would say if someone asked me that would be my response.
Bailey Petersen: That’s exactly what it showed in this book as well. Although I got to say the males I’ve harvested, I think are a little beefier than the majority of the rest.
Hank Shaw: We’re going to get into the whole Fool Hen thing. Even we talked before we got on the air, Bailey, they’re adapted for what they’re used to getting away from, not necessarily from the hairless monkeys with firearms.
Bailey Petersen: Yeah, exactly. It does take a long time for that trend to kind of evolutionarily adapt out of their system, the fear of humans.
Hank Shaw: They’re called spruce grouse not only because they live in and among spruces and pines and other conifers, but I think most people listening to this know that in the winter time they basically hang out in trees and eat pine needles and spruce needles and such. But it’s my understanding that the diet of a spruce grouse varies quite a bit, depending on the time of the year.
Bailey Petersen: That’s correct, yeah. Hang onto your seats because here’s a fun fact. The spruce grouse in the wintertime only eats needles from short needle conifer and their gizzard will get bigger and their digestive track will elongate and it can get like three times bigger in the winter time just to process the amount of food that it needs to eat and to process a diet of only needles. In the spring time, they’ll switch over to more greens and in the summer seeds and insects. In the fall, you’ll get more leaves and seeds and lingering insects, the juveniles feed primarily on insects. And so they get big fast and gain enough protein to kind of roll into winter in good body condition.
Hank Shaw: Do you know about how long an average spruce grouse lives?
Bailey Petersen: Well, that’s a good question that I don’t know. They’re not super well-studied, especially over here in the Great Lakes area, but I would imagine the average spruce grouse just like the average any bird is less than one year, but I know that like to get a nice male for mounting, it needs to be an adult bird. So you don’t get all the pin feathers and so that it does happen a two or three-year-old bird, it’s not uncommon to find them.
Hank Shaw: Do you have any idea that Kevin?
Kevin Kossowan: No, zero. I mean, I’ve never even pondered that. But as we’ve chatted about in the past, that’s certainly very different than a Canada grouse saying that’s kind of shocking actually that they don’t even live that long, I’m surprised.
Hank Shaw: Well, I mean, it’s just like, I mean, if you imagine the Russians trying to beat back the Germans at Leningrad, right? Most of them die in that first wave and then, but some of them will live for quite a while and so it’s just like doves. The average dove, if you’re just looking at numbers, they live in the order of months, but there’s such a plastic species that I believe there’ve been doves that are 20 years old in captivity. So they can live that long, but it’s a rough life being a chicken.
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah, every predator is out for you for sure, including humans.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, I mean, all of the chicken birds and Bailey, correct me if I’m wrong on this one too, but it’s my understanding that all of the chicken like birds, the gallinaceous birds, they all have precocious young, which means that like they hatch and then they’re already walking around eating as opposed to like a songbird, which the mom’s got a feed and parents who’ve got a feed that bird for quite some time. And so the trade off with being a precocious chick being able to kind of, sort of fend for yourself right off the bat is that you’d live fast and die hard.
Bailey Petersen: No, you’re exactly right. They’re not left to fend for themselves right off the bat, but, I mean, they are because they aren’t being fed. They’re being led to good food areas, but they need to feed themselves. There’s the reason they have large clutch sizes and there’s also a reason that all eggs hatch around the same time. It’s the same with really any prey species. You just get it all out there at once so that the predators don’t get all of them is pretty much the goal is to recruit some for the next generation. And so, however you do that, that’s really their goal.
Hank Shaw: Do they have to hide in the scrub when they’re really young chicks? Because I’m betting they can’t fly right off the bat.
Bailey Petersen: Right, that it takes a little bit. I’m not sure how long for a spruce grouse chick to fly, but it’s anything like ruffed grouse, it’s within two weeks, but that’s why I’m really all these grouse species in the forest and cover type do take to dense covers when they’re young.
Hank Shaw: So one thing that we noticed in talking about diet again, is the spruce grouse that Kevin and I hunted, we did it, it was September, right?
Kevin Kossowan: Yes.
Hank Shaw: It hadn’t even been snow yet or if there had, it’s just been a dusting I live in California and Kevin lives in Edmonton. So I like to send pictures of the Arctic Tundra and label it Edmonton in summer.
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah, you do, you razz us good.
Hank Shaw: But I mean, nonetheless, in all reality, I don’t think there hadn’t been any snow yet. And in this hunt I’ll tell you this, those spruce grouse were delicious. And so their diet did not include any pine needles at that point.
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah, I want to jump in there, because I mean, I’m actually editing an episode From The Wild right now, looking at spruce grouse on my screen. And we had a couple people who hadn’t experienced them, one person, who’s a new hunter and then another person from Nova Scotia where you can’t hunt them. And so they were both new pallets, fresh eyes on the species, so to speak food-wise and both of them were shocked at how little it or zero it tasted like evergreen is kind of the assumption is. Now that makes sense that people think it tastes that way if that is indeed their diet later on in the season.
Kevin Kossowan: So I get that, but I grew up with people, hunting them in September all the time and then still describing them as sprucey or something. And I think it has more to do with the fact that it’s a dark meat and not a light meat and it’s not chicken. They expect it to be chicken and it’s just not chicken. So, just all that to say my experience has been the same that we’ve found them to be completely not spruce needly when we’re hunting them in September here in Alberta.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, the color thing I want to touch on too, because the birds that we hunted, they were not dark meat. They weren’t as light as a ruffie, but they weren’t that dark red that you see at a sharp-tail or the breast of the sage.
Bailey Petersen: No, I will agree with that. The juveniles, I think, especially, and if you don’t know… I mean, if the body size looks full, then I guess you don’t really know if you’ve got a juvenile or an adult without studying the primary feathers. But I think it’s more common to have a juvenile where the breast meat is going to look more like a Hungarian Partridge, just kind of an in between color, and that has a lot to do with their diet.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, I noticed that. And so, I mean, I then I’ve talked to my friends in Alaska who hunt them and they’re like, “Oh my God,” they show me pictures and it’s almost blue, but they’re hunting them in the middle of the snow.
Kevin Kossowan: Interesting, I mean, we can hunt spruce grouse here, I believe until January 15th. And we don’t generally because it’s a miserable time to be out in the bush, but that’s fascinating too. I may go for a late season hunt just to see what these things tastes like that late in the season.
Hank Shaw: I mean, especially if you pluck them, I bet you they’re going to be noticeably piney.
Kevin Kossowan: I want to try that.
Bailey Petersen: That’s what we’ve seen here as well. I mean once their diets switches over and when I get people calling me who want to come up North to pursue this spruce grouse, that is sort of the time of year that I tell them to come up, come in December, because if there’s not too much snow on the ground, when you’re walking in the black spruce bog, maybe a light layer snow would be ideal. You can see if there’s any sign from the birds or you could see tracks. And then it’s just a little bit easier walking in the spruce bogs when it’s frozen and you don’t have to wear rubber boots and worry about going over. But you are going to get more conifer tasting, darker meat at that time.
Hank Shaw: Interesting, I don’t know that I would have ever thought to chase spruces in the dead of winter in the Arrowhead. I mean, I used to live in St. Paul and the idea of going, even just going to the Arrowhead in January is exciting, but so for listeners who don’t know what the Arrowhead is, put in your head the map of Minnesota where it’s kind of like a… actually kind of looks like a fish collar with that arc on the one side of it, the top is a pointy piece, that’s where Bailey lives and that’s called the Arrowhead. Like you said, it’s probably the southernmost area where the boreal forest reaches, right?
Bailey Petersen: Right, yeah. And I did tell a lot of people to go and [inaudible 00:23:19] spruce grouse up in December last year. But unfortunately, in mid November to late November, we got two to three feet of snow, really, that makes that pursuit almost impossible. You can do it and you can do it on snowshoes, but that’s a journey for a real ambitious person.
Hank Shaw: That’s a long walk for a cup of coffee. So hunting spruces, I think there’s four or five States that you can do it. So I know you can hunt them in the UP, I think, right?
Bailey Petersen: No, you can’t actually. I don’t know how long that’s been. I just know Wisconsin and UPs closed right now, both of those. It’s listed as a threatened species in one of those States. But yeah, Minnesota is the only Great Lake State with the season. And I don’t know which Eastern States have-
Hank Shaw: There are none. Yeah, so they live in Maine, but. So, okay, so riddle me this batman, if I’m out there grouse hunting in the UP in say October, what’s the easiest way to not shoot a spruce grouse?
Bailey Petersen: That’s a good question and I have seen that issue on the social media in the past, unfortunately. So I think it does happen and especially if people are traveling to hunt and they don’t know the difference. And to be completely honest, I am sometimes suspicious on whether those birds were shot on the wing if it’s a spruce grouse because they are most commonly seen just hanging out on the roads and if they haven’t been hunted then they have no need for a fear of humans, but there is some obvious color differences between the males of the species. The female spruce grouses could be a lot harder to tell apart than the ruffed grouse on the wing with the exception of the tail, with the banding on the tail for the ruffed grouse. And then, the fact that they don’t make as loud of a noise when they flush as the ruffed grouse does.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, you noticed that the boys spruce grouse are kind of charcoal black with white stripes.
Bailey Petersen: Yeah, some pretty stark contrast white barring on the chest. And then they have the black tail with the copper terminal fans that are kind of just copper tips on the tail.
Hank Shaw: Which is the reverse of a ruffie which has a light tail and a dark band.
Bailey Petersen: Right.
Kevin Kossowan: All that said, I would say growing up, it was awfully hard to tell, at some points, what you were looking at. And for me, it didn’t matter, you could take five of one species or the other or of each I should say, so it wasn’t really something we paid much attention to, it was just about getting the bird. But I can’t even imagine having to pre-identify the species at 30, 40 yards or whatever if it’s in thick stuff. So that’s interesting and that’s an issue, but it certainly, I can see it being an issue, that’s for sure, trying to get that ID right.
Bailey Petersen: Yeah, it did happen to me in the UP of Michigan last year. We were in a Tamarack cover type which you can certainly find spruce grouse in when they still have needles, otherwise I don’t think there’s a lot of real use for them there as far as from a food standpoint, maybe from a cover standpoint. But anyway, I chose not to take that shot because I didn’t know. You know how it goes and you’re in thick cover so it really could be either species, but that’s also their nature of escape is flushing through thick cover and you can barely get a glimpse.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, I mean, I think probably you alluded to it before, there was a time honored tradition of the skillet shot with any grouse. I think if you’re going to whack a grouse on the ground or in a tree branch, you better damn well identify it first. Didn’t you used to hunt him, Kevin, with rifles?
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah, I mean, you talk about shooting grouse on the wing, that’s until I met you, Hank, I had never shot at a grouse with a shotgun. I mean, we hunted them with 22s forever. It’s funny how there has to be shame with how you shoot at a bird if you intend to kill it, you intend to kill it and that’s kind of how I see it. But there’d be shame if you hit it in the body with the 22, so we were always aiming for the head. And then you came along and said, “Well, I can’t believe that you can even hunt them with rifles.” And since then, to be honest, I only hunt across the shotguns now because they don’t blow them up as much as I thought they might. But all that to say, yeah, we’ve hunted them with 22s for eons and most people here, I would say, still do.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, isn’t that crazy, Bailey?
Bailey Petersen: I mean, I’ve heard of that and it certainly is a less wasteful from a meat standpoint in less, but you’re right, unless you’re shooting them from 10 yards away you’re usually blowing them apart. I’ve heard of quite a few people that will take a 22 with them into the boundary waters and shoot on whatever grouse variety they come across for the griddle that night.
Hank Shaw: Is that even legal though?
Bailey Petersen: Yes, it’s legal in Minnesota to use a rimfire 22.
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah, in which case, by the way, shooting a bird on the fly, around the wing is just not a thing I grew up with at all, that was absolutely… And actually, that was the other thing that you taught me, Hank, is that if a bird flushed, the numbers used to be so good up here when I was a kid that you would just pass, just move on because there’s no way you’re going to hit it if it’s flying, and then good luck trying to find it. But I found you were hunting with the dog. It’s just if the thing flushed that’s when you were game on and you’d go track it down and walk it up and find it, which has changed how I hunt them a lot, our success rate’s gone up a lot with that approach to hunting them is… and I find give up their cover quite easily, actually. Most of the time, if you walk in on a meal, you’ll hear them chirping before they fly or something, that’ll give you a cue as to where they are. So thanks for that, you’ve improved our hunt ratio or kill ratio.
Bailey Petersen: That’s one of the things that’s really interesting about this spruce grouse and their reputation as the full hand is that they’re not wary of us as humans but hunting them with dogs is a totally different story. They are a wary grouse, they don’t like canines, they’ve been much more wary and flushing just like a ruffed grouse with dogs on the ground.
Hank Shaw: So they have to worry about foxes normally, right?
Bailey Petersen: Yes.
Hank Shaw: That’s the canine that they’re trained to avoid.
Bailey Petersen: Yeah, generally.
Hank Shaw: I don’t know of anybody who’s ever hunted them with a dog except you Bailey. Okay, so Kevin and I are just going to wander through the woods looking them with a 22, or shotgun or whatever, but you’ve got a dog on the ground, so how does that work?
Bailey Petersen: It’s fairly similar to other forest grouse or forest hunting, so woodcock and grouse hunting with a dog. But for me and my dogs, the way we work, and this has a lot to do with the research that we’re helping with and the fact that in the springtime we’re doing woodcock banding together as well, so my dogs are really keyed into bird scent, not necessarily from the bird itself, they’ll stop. It’s not a real staunch point but they’ll let me know when they find bird poop, essentially. So for the woodcock it’d be splash and for the grouse it would be their pellets. And I learned in our research study that we’re working on that a spruce grouse poops out a pellet every six minutes because they eat so much. And so, there’s a lot of pellets scattered through the wood.
Hank Shaw: Not five, not 10, but six minutes.
Bailey Petersen: Six minutes on average. And so my dogs are actually, now they’re starting to linger around a base of a tree with a lot of pellets by it because that’s a lot of scent coming off of those birds or maybe those birds were down on the ground prior and I just didn’t know. I can’t pretend to know what the dogs can smell because it’s obviously just a lot better than anything that we can pick up on. And so, that’s how I know that we’re getting into good cover, but both of my dogs are kind over the tracking variety. So they’ll just put their nose down and work up a birds scent and they’re both very cautious. And so, they’ll stop where the bird stops and then they’ll stop.
And the spruce grouse, they don’t run off a point like a ruffed grouse will, but they certainly will wander or they’ll hop up into branches. And so, one of mine’s better at pointing them in trees than the other but every bird tells kind of a different story. So I don’t know that I figured it out totally yet, but that’s kind of how it goes. And they get over pressured just like a ruffed grouse or woodcock would and they’ll flush if they feel threatened.
But the thing about the spruce grouse is they’re just going to go up into a mid level branch because a red fox, which probably used to be their main ground predator, they’re also pretty heavily preyed on by aerial predators. But the red fox doesn’t climb trees and it’s only up until more recently that the gray fox has moved North into the Southern edge of their range as well. And they can actually climb trees a little bit, but that being said, foxes, they are a predator but they aren’t out pursuing spruce grouse, I don’t think.
Kevin Kossowan: I was going to say we have lynx here in higher numbers than usual and there’s definitely cougars here too, so I’d be surprised if they weren’t getting chased by cats.
Bailey Petersen: Yeah, a component of our annual spruce grouse survey is looking at spruce grouse pellets on the ground, we’re also identifying ruffed grouse pellets on the ground, and we’re also identifying hare pellets, presence of hares and how much hare. And then we can kind of see if the presence of hare is more abundant and more of those mixed conifer and deciduous covers, or what’s the presence of hare in the very, very dense kind of recover, there might not be enough food for a hare in those kinds of covers.
Hank Shaw: Ah, okay, so snowshoes you mean?
Bailey Petersen: Yes.
Hank Shaw: Because yeah, you have lynx in the Arrowhead, right?
Bailey Petersen: Yes.
Hank Shaw: I have never laid eyes on a lynx in person.
Kevin Kossowan: Oh, okay.
Hank Shaw: Buckets of bobcats but never lynx.
Bailey Petersen: They’re fairly elusive, although when you do see them or when we have some kittens, they tend to hang out on the road and let you actually get a picture of them, the bobcats tend to be more skittish but there are not a lot of them.
Kevin Kossowan: We’ve had some amazing photos and film footage of lynx the last couple of years where we go. For some reason, they just started to show up. And like you said, they just don’t care that we’re there, a lynx does not care at all, they’ll just dawdle. You can talk to them and whatever, they just doesn’t spook them and nothing.
Hank Shaw: They get pretty big too, like 50 pounds, right?
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah, they’re a big cat, they’re a tall cat.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, very tall with big, big, huge-looking feet.
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah, and just kind of on that, you mentioned fox is like a primary predator, I can’t say I’ve even never seen a fox out where we hunt. So coyotes, wolves, that kind of thing, would those be predators, Bailey?
Bailey Petersen: Probably, I think the biggest predator to a spruce grouse is probably a nest predator, so that’s going to take a bigger toll on a population than popping an individual bird every once in a while. It’s more of an opportunistic predation than something seeking out spruce grouse in particular.
Kevin Kossowan: Okay, so on the nest side, would that include things like fishers, and martens and the weasel family?
Bailey Petersen: Yeah, it even we’ll include things like a red squirrel.
Kevin Kossowan: Oh, okay.
Hank Shaw: And definitely ravens.
Bailey Petersen: Yes.
Kevin Kossowan: Oh, okay.
Hank Shaw: I have heard great stories of a flock of spruces in a tree and some dude whacks his whole limit out of the same tree and the spruce grouse is just like, “What happened to Louie?” And Louie’s is on the ground. And-
Kevin Kossowan: I did that last year. Oh my God, it’s just the weirdest thing, it makes you feel terrible.
Hank Shaw: And it’s also why the bag limits are so small, thank God, because like you could seriously put the wood to these birds if there was a limit of 10 which would be terrible, but-
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah, yeah, we’ve certainly done that where they just all flush up into the trees and just sometimes you get lucky and see them all and they don’t fly anywhere as you start shooting. But I mean, ruffed grouse also do that sometimes, but I would say spruce grouse are little versed at figuring it out.
Hank Shaw: I’m pretty sure you’ll never get a ruffed grouse to do that in Minnesota.
Kevin Kossowan: Oh really? With 22s as kids, you would get multiple shooting for the head, if you missed it was okay because usually you’d get another couple shots before they would walk off and do something else, they just didn’t care.
Hank Shaw: You see, this is a thing, Western ruffed grouse especially, they’re kind of dim. Where Bailey and I have hunted ruffed grouse in the Arrowhead and they’re super elusive. It’s an entirely different bird once you get from Minnesota all the way to Maine, just a different bird.
Kevin Kossowan: That’s interesting.
Bailey Petersen: I always get a little offended when people talk about how easy it is to hunt ruffed grouse because this is not easy and it’s a pursuit so it’s fun, and it’s special, and it’s one of my favorite things to do ever. But I would like to see some of those Western birds and really see what they are like.
Hank Shaw: Do it after you’ve had a typical Baudette kind of Grand Rapids, Canadian border of Minnesota where the typical shot, Kevin, is you hear a flush behind you so you have to pivot pure wet, figure out where the sound’s coming from, shoot in its general direction and listen to the flapping and see maybe if you put a pellet in.
Kevin Kossowan: Oh, wow. Yeah, you might be disappointed if you come here because if we would just show you one and you’d shoot it and it’d be done. That doesn’t sound like any fun. Well, yeah, I don’t know why I know grouse populations were crazy off the hook when I was a kid and then they went down for probably almost 20 years. But boy, the last few years have they been back, we’re shooting limits of birds without even… we’re not even grouse hunting, we’re looking for other stuff and you’re just bringing home limits of grouse.
Bailey Petersen: Wow.
Hank Shaw: So that brings up the question, are spruce grouse populations cyclical the same way that ruffed grouse are?
Bailey Petersen: As far as the well-documented 10 year cycle, I don’t think so. I think that they’re cyclical in the nature of habitat, quality and abundance. Jack pine spruce cover types that they inhabit here are fire dependent or used to be fire dependent. And so, I would say that 100% were cyclical based on fires that happened either regularly or irregularly back through history. But now, with timber management, I think there may be just a little bit more stable. And the unfortunate reality of climate change is that their habitat could look different. And so, it’s hard to know whether their population will be stable or decreasing and what is the new norm as far as population levels are high population versus low. We don’t know because we don’t have a good grasp on what the population is.
We do a survey every year, every few years of small game hunters or grouse hunters. And the spruce grouse is kind of just a byproduct of ruffed grouse hunters and so it’s really hard to determine a population based on the reported take of spruce grouse. So the survey that we’ve been in, we’re in the third year of it now, is hopefully going to tell us what the population is like. But we don’t really know. We haven’t pretty well documented for hare and therefore lynx and then, what we used to think was a 10 year cycle for ruffed grouse here in the Great Lakes, or at least in Minnesota, but even knowing that that has changed with increased precipitation and decreased hatch success, so it’s really hard to say.
Hank Shaw: So tell me about the survey, this research that you’re working on.
Bailey Petersen: The research project that we’re working on is really interesting. It’s pegged to look at spruce grouse that are currently living within timber stands that are going to be harvested. So we have this list of timber stands that are going to be harvested. So there’ll be clear cut that will go from 100% forested to a wide open area. And we want to see where those birds go, how far do they need to travel to find their ideal cover? Because obviously, the birds that are in there now, feel like it is ideal cover. There’s a bunch of volunteers with pointing dogs and we kind of, we based ideal cover based on just the cover type itself, so we don’t know for sure that it’s ideal cover so we’re scouring these stands with our dogs and looking either for sign or for birds.
And if we find birds we’ll put a radio transmitter on them and then, with any luck, they’ll still be alive when timber harvest occurs and we can see where they go. It’s a really neat project that, like I said, they haven’t really been studied all that well over here, but it’ll sure give us a lot of information to inform management decisions for timber harvest but also just to know a little bit more about the birds and the habits. They’re sort of a weird bird, like I said, they haven’t been studied super well over here but they’re not like a ruffed grouse where you can just survey them based on a noise that the male makes, or a drumming survey, or like for the woodcock, the singing ground survey, they don’t make a vocalization or they don’t do it regularly.
I think there’s a call called the Kansas call that you can use like a playback method for a certain variety of spruce grouse but we tried that and it doesn’t work. It might work up to 30% of the time. And so, that wasn’t an effective method to survey them. We tried dogs and that wasn’t a very effective method to survey them either. So we moved to the pellet survey, just sort of similar to how we used to survey for deer in Minnesota long ago, but we just survey the same transects every year and look for poop. And if we find more than we found more than last year, it’s still in its infancy. So we don’t know a lot about whether the population is fluctuating or staying stable yet, but we hope to.
Hank Shaw: I think that’s really interesting that a bird that is pursued more by humans is more studied. So the glamor bird and the grouse world is the ruffie. And so there’s all kinds of studies in ruffed grouse. Then you get the second glamor bird or the ruffed grouse, which is the sage hen because the sage hen is, A, gigantic and, B, it’s threatening pretty much. So there’s this twin motivation of it. It’s a major prey species is one and two, it’s a charismatic megafauna and the other… and this spruce is just kind of isn’t, he’s just kind of there, and he does this thing. And I did a pretty quick search on what is it? Falcipennis, is their Latin name, and yeah, there isn’t a lot of data on them compared to the other birds. And it just is as kind of an out of sight out of mind thing.
Bailey Petersen: Right, it’s like their reputation is the same as their secretive nature, I don’t know.
Kevin Kossowan: That’s interesting because, to me, on the food side this Hank that there’s some species that people get obsessed with eating, whether it’s because they are tasty or not, but we just tend to, I don’t know, chase certain species at the exclusion of others. So, I mean, this is kind of no different. I find that research that you’re doing, Bailey, fascinating. The idea of actually tracking the displacement of wildlife in the event of a clearcut, boy, does that make me wish that we had that research being done on all the species that would inhabit that forest, that we better understand the impact that we have when we go take that kind of action on the forestry side. So really cool to hear that you’re doing that.
Bailey Petersen: I agree, it is super cool, and it’s pretty new, and I feel lucky to have the opportunity to help with it.
Hank Shaw: I think one of the reasons why, from a hunter effort perspective, is because, like you’re talking about your moose hunt, unless you are really, really, really, really, really deep in the boreal, you’re going to find spruce grouse and another grouse, whether it’s a ruffed, or a blue grouse or some other kind of a bird. So I was in Talkeetna, Alaska and there were spruce grouse mixed in with willow ptarmigan. So there’s often another bird there because of their eating reputation, which I think we can kind of all agree is undeserved, they’re the lesser of the chosen species. So there’s this kind of… yeah, it’s sprucey.
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah, for sure. I hear that all the time.
Hank Shaw: You’ve seen me pluck spruce grouse and ruffed grouse. I’ll actually say that it’s easier to pluck a spruce grouse than it is a ruffed grouse.
Kevin Kossowan: Okay, I wouldn’t have guessed that but I’ll take it, I’ll take your word for it.
Hank Shaw: I have to think that this is one of those deals where there’s just this human tradition of “Man, it’s not good,” because somebody ate a really nasty, like a three-year-old rooster that had been eating pine needles in January-
Kevin Kossowan: And then cooked it bad, yeah-
Hank Shaw: And then overcooked it.
Kevin Kossowan: And they cooked it wrong. And I think, Hank, that’s one of the things that I learned hanging out with you. I’ve got onto sharp-tail here in the grasslands in the last few years and learned that they neither are like a ruffed grouse. I think if you’re chasing birds, grouse in general, and expect them all to taste like a chicken, you’re going to be disappointed. I think a ruffed grouse can kind of come across that way from time to time, but often it doesn’t, it can have that twangy unique flavor that it can have. So I think the general problem is that people approach a spruce grouse as if it’s supposed to be a domestically-raised barn chicken and voila, ta-da, it’s not, you have to cook it more like a year and a half old white tail deer rather than the chicken you bought at the grocery stores. That’s where the trip up and fail, is just the assumption that it is something that it’s not.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, I mean, I think this confuses most bird hunters. I mean, it definitely confuses the people that bird hunters are serving. The thing about grouse that I love and that I think all three of us love that is fascinating from a culinary person is that there’s no equivalent. When you talk about the flavor of a spruce grouse which is ranging from very piney, to slightly piney, to funky and it’s dark but it’s not that dark, the legs are firm but they’re not like a turkey leg. And you find yourself grasping for weird straws when you’re trying to explain to a civilian what this thing tastes like. And then when they taste it, they have no frame of reference. Yeah, so it’s like, “I don’t know what this tastes like.” The lack of a frame of reference, to my mind, makes these birds extra special.
Kevin Kossowan: Agreed, but to most people, that’s scary and offensive and they would need you to not like it, I think, or too many. And then compound on that, that they probably already overcooked the crap out of it.
Hank Shaw: Just like there haven’t been a lot of studies on the biology of this bird, there’s probably been zero studies on the food safety of this bird. But I can tell you from at least American CDC data on all food poisoning, when I was writing Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail, I went back 15 years of data looking for any kind of upland bird food poisonings. And there was one case, somebody getting listeria from quail but they think that happened once the bird was out of the woods. So in theory, you could probably eat medium rared spruce grouse if you wanted. But with my limited experience with spruce grouse, I like them kind of medium well. So an interior temperature, about 150 on the breast, so 145, 150. It’s not cooked like a chicken breast but nor is it cooks like a duck breast either, somewhere around medium well.
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah, fair, again, I agree with that. Just out of curiosity, where would you take a sharp-tail in that or where would you put sharp-tail in that space?
Hank Shaw: I’d put sharp-tail in the duck and dove space. So I actually do cook sharp-tail grouse breasts medium, like 135, 140 interior, I like them pink.
Kevin Kossowan: Yes, me too.
Hank Shaw: How about you Bailey?
Bailey Petersen: I think for the most part, if I’m plucking the birds, first of all, they’re going to be of the lighter meat variety or a really good shot or else I tend not to spend a lot of the time or for the Franklin’s variety when I’ve been out in Montana, that’s going to be that meal right now. And so, those tend to get more diced up and cooked.
Hank Shaw: Because it was a camp meal.
Bailey Petersen: Yes, exactly, but on the roasted birds, and I do like to put them side by side with a ruffie when we do that, just for kind of fun and we’re cooking pretty much 100% on a trigger pellet grill. So they’re getting rubbed a little bit and they’re going to be pretty much roasted to a temperature like a ruffed would. And so, I think it should probably be on that medium, well scale. I don’t know, I mean, to me, and I’m not like you guys, a professional chef or anything, I’m not pan frying a breast and cutting, slicing it to see that color like I would with a venison steak or something, so I don’t really know. But I would think more closely to closer to the medium well.
Hank Shaw: So when you put them side by side, do you notice any patterns of how people react to the two different birds?
Bailey Petersen: Well, yeah, I mean, there’s just that notion that that darker meat grouse isn’t going to taste this good. And I do like to do it because I do like to surprise people and I’m not 100% sure where the reputation that’s something that tastes piney is necessarily a bad thing. I mean, people love-
Kevin Kossowan: As they buy rosemary at the grocery store.
Bailey Petersen: Yeah, or drink a spruce tea or a Labrador tea, people like that flavor sort of in other things but they certainly like that smell. I picked up a roadkill deer one year and that was the piniest tasting thing I’ve ever had that I didn’t feel like that was a bad thing.
Hank Shaw: We get that with sagey things out here in my part of the world.
Bailey Petersen: Yeah, same reputation.
Hank Shaw: That’s a sagey pronghorn. I’m like, “Awesome, it’s pre-seasoned.”
Kevin Kossowan: I have a question for you Bailey, you’ve mentioned a few times the different varieties of spruce grouse and this is news to me. So what different types are there?
Bailey Petersen: Well, the Franklin’s and then the Canada. And the Franklin’s, I think, is just more that mountainous type and then the Canada is what we see in our dense spruce and jack pine. And I’m not exactly sure what kind of trees they’re hanging out in upper bayou but I would assume those are the Canada subspecies that you’re not in the Rockies necessarily over there, are you?
Kevin Kossowan: No, I mean, sometimes, but primarily not. So I would assume we’re seeing Canada when we’re hunting, yeah, interesting-
Bailey Petersen: I don’t know if they’re different from a flavor standpoint, I don’t know if a jack pine diet bird tastes different than a lodgepole diet bird, but I don’t know.
Hank Shaw: They just split them, didn’t they? They actually said that in 2014 that Franklin’s is a different species.
Bailey Petersen: Subspecies.
Hank Shaw: Subspecies, okay, interesting. Yeah, I have some homework to do, I didn’t know that.
Yeah, that’s probably because there’re probably some morphological differences. If I remember right, the Franklin’s is darker, they like mountains too.
Bailey Petersen: Yes, there may be a difference in size, but again, don’t know enough to say that for sure.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, if I remember my reading correctly, there’s five subspecies and the two that have the biggest difference are the Canada and the Franklin’s. And there’s like weird-
Bailey Petersen: I think the rest fall under the Canada, yes.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, there’s two different subspecies, one that only lives in Southeast Alaska and there’s one that lives in interior Alaska in the Yukon.
Kevin Kossowan: Okay, so sorry to railroad that conversation because we kind of derailed from the culinary side which I’m keen to go back to. Hank, what are your thoughts on the notion that we probably should cook spruce grouse, pair it with different flavors maybe than what people might think about if they shoot a ruffed grouse or same thing with the sharp-tail that you might want to choose different flavors to pair with that meat, is that something that you would recommend?
Hank Shaw: Yeah, I mean, if this is just the same way we were talking about the fact there’s very little point of reference for these birds, other than the environment in which they live. So it’s just the same thing with the sagey pronghorn, go with what God gave you, Rosemary, if you got Rosemary. But I like working with spruce tips. I make a pine cone syrup that glazes the spruce grouse really, really well. So the short version of that is you take small, very fragrant green unripe pine cones, and I’ve done it with a couple of species, but I do it with pinyon pines here in California, and you bury them in sugar. And the moisture in these cones will melt that sugar over time. And it creates this amber syrup where the only liquid in the syrup came out of a pine cones. And it’s one of the most aromatic, beautiful things I’ve ever worked with. You glaze a roast spruce grouse for that and it’s pretty close to a deathbed meal.
Kevin Kossowan: Wow, interesting, I made a liquor out of black spruce cones this year and it was shocking, shockingly lovely, the flavor vibe. Okay, so then just to kind of keep on that, how would you differ your approach to the two, a mild ruffie versus a late-season spruce grouse? What would you say the ruffed grouse would play nicer with?
Hank Shaw: I always associate ruffed grouse with deciduous forest, so I’m always associating them with more berries and nuts than I would have spruce grouse. So I’m going to kind of lean more towards peach nuts, hickory, acorns, and then you’ve got all of the fall berries that exist in that area. Now, the only real berry that I’m probably going to associate with the spruce grouse, and this is maybe more sort of blue grouse territory is the rowan berry, the mountain-ash. If you’re in the super crazy piney area that I’m used to, that’s your primary berry that’s going to be around when spruce trees are. The other one that kind of is leaner between the two is the highbush cranberries. So the highbush cranberries work really well with both ruffies and spruce grouse. I’m willing to bet that if you did a food habit study, both birds eat them.
Kevin Kossowan: Okay, back to you, Bailey, I want to know what kind of berries would a spruce grouse eat?
Bailey Petersen: Hank’s dead on there. But we do have the bog cranberry and the black spruce bogs up here also. And then there’s some smaller variety of blueberry that they’ll actually eat the leaves and the berries on those.
Hank Shaw: I forgot, that’s right. You’re in actual real cranberry territory.
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah, out here too, we have bog cranberries and they are sublime, I’ve fallen deeply in love with that little plant, hard to find. But you mentioned spruce bogs earlier and so that does make sense. How about things like lingonberry and cloudberries, those kinds of things?
Bailey Petersen: Not down here.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, lingonberries are tough to find because remember I had misidentified kinnikinic for lingonberry that first time.
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah, then what about all the other little guys like bunchberry, and all those and kinnikinic, they’re not after those?
Bailey Petersen: I think bunchberry, we do have those here but those are ripe right now and I guess I don’t know for sure, I’m sure they do. They’re heavily after fungi right now in our woods, so I guess you could play to that, but I’m not a super expert on those either.
Hank Shaw: I hadn’t heard about that, that spruce grouse eat mushrooms.
Bailey Petersen: Yeah, I keyed in on that a little bit too, actually. So if I see a mushroom that has a lot of little peck holes in it, then start looking up.
Hank Shaw: Oh, you can see the peck holes and everything, that’s pretty cool.
Kevin Kossowan: That is cool, I didn’t know that.
Hank Shaw: That’s a great hunting pro tip, look for pecked mushrooms. Normally, you see mushrooms with little bites out of them from squirrels, but that’s a good one, Bailey. I kind of want to wrap it up a little bit soon-ish, but okay, if somebody wanted to hunt spruce grouse, so there’s two kinds of people I imagine would hunt spruce grouse, people who live where spruce grouse live and people who want to get that experience of going to a different and unusual environment. So first of all, where would you tell somebody to go if they were going to hunt spruce grouse? And then, do you have any tips on, okay, I’m in a general environment where they should live, now what?
Bailey Petersen: All right, most often, around here, we’re going to get the destination hunters, the people who are looking to pursue them specifically. And it is definitely a hunt that you can make too easy for people if you have the local knowledge to do so. And so, I will give them all the information I can about their cover types and preferred habitats and then I’m going to send them to an area and I may or may not give them specific roads because, like I said earlier, the nature of those birds if they’re picking grit, like I said, as the season progresses and they start to switch to a needle diet, they’re going to be picking more grit to grind down those needles that are going to be a lot harder to digest than soft berry or mushrooms. So anyway, they spend more time on the roads and they may be doing that on the colder mornings just to get some sunshine too.
So I’m hesitant to send somebody who’s looking for a pursuit to a road that they’re going to be sitting on, but that’s not really up to me and you can’t pretend to know what they’re going to be doing all the time. So I’ll send them to good habitat and tell them exactly what I mentioned earlier about their preferred cover being so thick that you can barely walk through and just spend some time in those stands, look for a sign.
You might get a neck ache if you walk around, staring up in the trees all the time, look at the bases of the trees and look for a sign that way too, that works on me. [crosstalk 00:58:22] The pellets, you can Google and see what spruce grouse poop looks like. I mean, if you’ve seen ruffed grouse poop or when the snow melts in the spring and you see these big piles all over the place from where they had been hanging out in the snow[inaudible 00:58:44] for a long period of time, it’s pretty distinguishable.
Hank Shaw: It’s a lot like when I squirrel hunt, I listen, because you’re super correct about getting a neck ache. So what I do instead is I listen real careful and I look at bases of trees to see because squirrels are messy eaters, so they drop everything at the base of the tree that they’re in. That’s a good way to protect your neck when you’re trying to hunt something that’s up in the tree.
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah, I just Googled spruce grouse poop. I totally recognize that. I had no idea that that’s what that was, thank you.
Bailey Petersen: Now you know, now you know.
Hank Shaw: How about you, Kevin?
Kevin Kossowan: Honestly, never has it ever crossed my mind to take somebody out specifically for spruce grouse other than maybe yourself, Hank, when you were here and we weren’t even specifically targeting them. So that is a new thought to me. But if I had to, now that we’ve talked about, I know exactly what you’re talking about with that really super dense, is it usually black spruce or is it white spruce that gets that dense or both?
Bailey Petersen: It can be white spruce, but white spruce doesn’t grow real well in plantations up here, it’s more of a mixed covered type. And so, it can be white spruce but it does tend to be more jack pine, pure jack pine stands, or pure black spruce or mixed spruce stands. And I admit, I have seen them in some nice, younger, medium-aged red pine stands before. And I have seen red pine needles in their crap, which looked like an accord and they were folded up three times, but it is not a food that is associated with them or considered to be part of their diet.
Kevin Kossowan: So to go back to that, the boreal where we hunt, I would just tell people to chase those really, really dense thickets because that’s the best I could do. And from there, like you said, it’s just a matter of tripping on them. I don’t think there’s any game use because we’re not hunting with dogs, getting on sign and tracking them down is not really a thing, so it’s just a matter of us happening upon them. So you make me feel like a bit of a poor hunter on that front, it’s just the hunt of coincidence, really.
Bailey Petersen: No, I don’t mean to do that. We have probably a way less population than you do and we need every resource we can.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, totally true, because I think the limit in every American state is three or less, I’ll double-check that for the show notes, and the limit is five in Canada, right?
Kevin Kossowan: Yeah.
Bailey Petersen: Ours is just combined in with our ruffed grouse, a total of five.
Kevin Kossowan: Ours is not combined. So you can get five spruces and five ruffed grouse.
Hank Shaw: Isn’t that a great one? Well, this was pretty cool. Actually, we talked about spruces a lot longer than I thought we were going to talk about spruces. No, it’s great. I mean, when you think about this bird is like an afterthought in upland bird hunting and there’s a lot more to this animal than, I think, many people realize.
Bailey Petersen: I hope so.
Kevin Kossowan: I have a correction, spruce grouse possession is 15 and ruffed is 15 and they are not combined. So you could actually have 30 birds on you here.
Hank Shaw: Well, but that’s possession, that’s not game.
Kevin Kossowan: That’s possession, yes.
Hank Shaw: I guess, as an upland bird hunter who likes to eat upland birds, the idea of coming home with 30 grouse, it’s just kind of epic.
Kevin Kossowan: I’ve done it, that’s what we did when we were kids, that’s the hunt we went on, that’s what we came home with.
Hank Shaw: Canadians, so yeah, so I think that the takeaway is go to the Arrowhead — Idaho is also quite good for spruce grouse hunting and they have a season. Washington has a season, but their habitat’s a bit limited. In that upper Western corner of Montana, that’s where that Franklin’s grouse live. That has a bunch of them too and I believe you have a three bird a day limit there. But really, it sounds like the place that you want to go for a boreal grouse is the boreal forest and 99% of that is in Canada. So before we go, tell everybody how they can get in touch with you, and how they can follow you on social media, and all that kind of good stuff. Let’s go with Bailey first.
Bailey Petersen: My Instagram handle is Bailey01, otherwise, you can find me, Bailey Peterson, at Facebook. If you’re looking to contact me about going out, where you should go grouse hunting in Minnesota, you can find me through our info center, DNR, or I think you can probably type my name into the search window on our website, Minnesota DNR, and get in touch with me there. Most people in wildlife know that I’m the grouse hunting nut.
Hank Shaw: Awesome, I’ll put all that stuff in the show notes as well, Kevin.
Kevin Kossowan: On Instagram, Kevin Kossowan, K-O-S-S-O-W-A-N, and then also @fromthewildca and fromthewild.ca is the website for the series that you’ve been on, Hank, with us, where we do actually some grouse cookery and the episode coming out in the next few weeks will be exactly about that. And what else, I guess, on Facebook as well, Kevin Kossowan on there.
Hank Shaw: Thank you, guys, for being on the show and I will have all of that stuff written down in the show notes along with pictures of grouse poop, and some links to some studies, and a couple of grouse recipes as well. So again, Kevin Kossawan and Bailey Peterson, thanks for being on the Hunt Gather Talk podcast.
Kevin Kossowan: Thanks, Hank.
Bailey Petersen: Thanks so much.