22 September 2009

Mountain Grouse Hunting

In southwest Montana near Butte America, we are blessed with various species of native grouse: (1) Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) found throughout the northern tier of North America. In this area it is a "low elevation" bird, found primarily in river valleys and creek bottoms; (2) Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis), also known as Fool Hen for its tendency to let you walk up within a few feet, are mid-elevation birds of the spruce and logdgepole pine forests. Its diet of spruce and pine buds make it somewhat unpalatable; (3) Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), our largest grouse, a creature of the sagebrush prairie. Practically extinct through most of its original range, "Sage Hens" are relatively abundant in Montana. Its diet of sage makes it unpalatable to many people, although for some hunters it is the King of Birds; (4) Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanchus phasianellus), also a prairie bird, but its diet of insects, seeds, and berries makes for a tasty dinner; and (5) Blue Grouse (Dendragapus obscurus)--officially known as "Dusky Grouse," but no one here calls them that.

Blue Grouse live on high mountain ridges just below treeline and seem especially frequent in whitebark pine forests broken up with parks and meadows. I find Blues in the same places I hunt elk. You seldom find a lot of them, but as with many mountain creatures, the quest itself is the real bounty. Saturday morning found "Little Brother" A.J., MollyTheDog, and me in the truck bouncing along 11 miles of bad road from the Big Hole River valley at 5,500 feet to road's end at 8,000 feet. We then hiked another mile and circled a ridge top at 9,000 feet.

Turns out MTD is a gun dog! For a pup less than a year old, she showed good bird sense: staying within range (well, most of the time), scenting & flushing birds, never flinching at the shot, and retrieving downed birds. Here she is dropping a young Blue at my feet:

The birds are well fed and tasty from their diet of pine nuts and grouse whortle berries. They store food in their crop before it moves on to the muscular gizzard where it is ground into a digestible pulp. Here's a grouse crop full of nuts along with a couple of whitebark pine cones:

Guess what other critter likes to eat pine nuts:

A red-tailed hawk ghosted us for awhile, hoping we would flush a grouse for it. It was soon mobbed and chased off by some whiskey jacks:

This was A.J.'s first grouse hunt. He missed a few and has yet to learn the art of swinging ahead of a bird ("leading" it) before shooting. Grouse hunting is a chance to reflect on the shooter's art of fine guns, like this little Winchester Model 12 pumpgun that Gramps bought in 1925:

He was recently married, and the money he laid out for this expensive gun nearly caused a divorce. Only Grandma being pregnant with my Dad and the many grouse, rabbit, and squirrel Gramps brought home for the table saved the marriage. Orginally chambered for 2&1/2 inch shells, Gramps filed the ejection port to accomodate the longer 2&3/4 inch shells that became standard after 1927. The lightweight 20 gauge is a beauty with its 25-inch barrel "Nickel Steel" barrel (I refinished the stock and had the metal reblued some years ago):

When I was 12 years old, it killed me to have to hunt with a cheap single-shot gun while all the men carried Winchester Model 12s, L.C. Smith double barrels, and other fine guns. That winter, I laid away a new shotgun at Ted Lundine's shop in Bradford, Pennsylvania for the princely sum of $182.50. I paid $5/week from my paper route money and the little Browning A5 "Light 20" was mine before the start of hunting season:

The day I paid it off, Mr. Lundine gave me a free box of shotshells. I've owned and hunted with a lot of shotguns since, including some fancy skeet guns, but the little Belgium-made Browning is still my favorite:

In hunting with A.J., I was transported back more than 40 years, hunting with Gramps and Bernard Dutka. When Molly flushed a grouse and I swung on it and shot, I felt like that 13-year old boy dropping his first bird with the shiny new gun.


B SQUARED said...

Such a different way of growing up. We were never around guns growing up. I've just recently taken up pistol shooting. Discovered that I am a pretty good shot. Hope to advance to bird hunting in the future. I'll have to get a new knee before that can happen, however. Regards.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Ah, the elusive mountain (blue/dusky and spruce) grouse. Here further south, they seem to like places with kinnikinnick (Uva ursi -- there's that bear connection) berries. But it's a lot of walking per bird, and you have to be in it for the scenery!

Janie said...

Interesting to see the crop with all those seeds in it. Looks like you had a great bird hunt. MTD must feel proud that she's turned out to be such a natural bird hunting dog!

Anonymous said...


That Browning is a sweet-looking gun! Congrats to MTD on her fine performance (I raise a cup of kibble in her direction). Very few berries in the crops of the birds I took last week-mostly leaves. Have you noticed much of a taste difference between the pine nut and berry grouse and those feeding on leaves?

You're right about most of the other grouse being less palatable--blues are certainly my favorite.

I enjoyed the post!

-scott c

~Sheepheads said...

Belgium A5s and Model 12s are beautiful. It is great that you are still using them as well! I have a Browning double o/u made in Belgium just prior to the shift to Japan. Great post.

Unseen Rajasthan said...

Beautiful and lovely shots !! The Gun is lovely !!Unseen Rajasthan

Thomas Venney said...


Thomas Venney said...

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