When most of us hear the words “game bird” we automatically think of the ring-necked pheasant. These redheaded, long-tailed little whirlwinds seem to dominate the upland world, evoking images of tweed cap-wearing aristocrats holding downed roosters and petting pedigreed dogs. Yet there is another, more common, populous, and widespread upland game bird out there that is just as obsessively pursued throughout the country: the grouse.
Grouse—chunky brush chickens—come in a variety of species that can be hunted in numerous ways. There are six types in North America, offering hunting opportunities for bird hunters in almost every state in the country. They aren’t an especially elusive or wary bird, and although they can provide a challenge to hunters, they are not the most difficult game birds to hunt. They can be hunted in the classic style, with dogs or long drive lines, or, where legal, they can be stalked alone in thick brush with .22 rifles. They are a great bird to hunt with young or new hunters because of their high population numbers and easy “huntability.” The best part? They are one of the best-eating game birds in existence. The key to hunting them, especially if you are just getting started, is to know the species in your area and the habitat they prefer.
Often referred to as “partridge,” the ruffed grouse is the most common grouse species in North America. Ranging across the bulk of the United States and Canada, these little brown birds can be found in almost any forest in the country. Preferring lower elevations with thick cover, the best places to look for these birds are in thick lowlands along rivers or creeks, or in open sections of hardwoods.
As their name suggests, spruce grouse prefer to live in thick conifer forests in the northern United States. They’re known as the “fool hen:” The birds almost seem tame, and can be approached incredibly easily as they are very unlikely to fly away when pressured. They are protected in some states so be sure to check your local regulations before heading into the woods in pursuit of them.
Sharp-tailed grouse are a different sort of bird altogether. They tend to get a lot more attention from upland bird hunters than other grouse species due to their tendencies to flush more readily than other birds and their brilliant plumage. Also called “prairie chickens,” they are generally found only in the northwestern United States, though their easy domestication and popularity as hunting quarry has caused the birds to be introduced all over the country. They prefer an open grassland habitat but can be found in creek bottoms and sage-covered flats.
The sooty is considered the most challenging grouse species to hunt. They generally don’t gather in large groups outside of mating season, preferring to be alone. Hunters who pursue them tend to cover a lot of ground while searching for a single bird. Sootys make their homes in areas similar to spruce grouse, spending most of their time in alpine coniferous forests. The sooty is a grouse of the Pacific Northwest, found only on the West Coast from northern California to Alaska.
The king of gamebirds, sage grouse are the largest members of the grouse family, often weighing in at a gargantuan 10 pounds or more. They are an incredibly hardy bird, preferring to live in the more arid and generally infertile habitats of the western grasslands. Though their populations have fallen dramatically in the United States, there is still quite a healthy and huntable population of the birds in Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota.
Dusky grouse are often confused with ruffed grouse, having similar colors and preferring similar habitat. However, Duskys are a much larger bird than the ruffed, and are only found in western states. Though they most often live in open prairie, duskys are a “bush bird,” with entire flocks of 20 or more often found together in a patch of brush.