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For other uses, see Grouse (disambiguation).
Temporal range: Early Pliocene to recent
Male sage grouse
Centrocercus urophasianus
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Subclass: Neornithes
Infraclass: Galloanserae
Order: Galliformes
Family: Phasianidae
Subfamily: Tetraoninae
Vigors, 1825

and see text


Tetraonidae Vigors, 1825

Grouse /ˈɡrs/ are a group of birds from the order Galliformes, in the family Phasianidae. Grouse are frequently assigned to the subfamily Tetraoninae (sometimes Tetraonidae), a classification supported by mitochondrial DNA sequence studies,[1] and applied by the American Ornithologists' Union,[2] ITIS,[3] and others.[4] Grouse inhabit temperate and subarctic regions of the northern hemisphere, from pine forests to moorland and mountainside,[5] from 83° North (rock ptarmigan in northern Greenland) to 28° North (Attwater's prairie chicken in Texas).[6]


Grouse are heavily built like other Galliformes such as chickens. They range in length from 31 to 95 cm (12 to 37 in), and in weight from 0.3 to 6.5 kg (0.66 to 14.33 lb). Males are bigger than females—twice as heavy in the western capercaillie, the biggest member of the family. Grouse have feathered nostrils. Their legs are feathered to the toes, and in winter the toes, too, have feathers or small scales on the sides, an adaptation for walking on snow and burrowing into it for shelter. Unlike other Galliformes, they have no spurs.[6]

Feeding and habits[edit]

These birds feed mainly on vegetation—buds, catkins, leaves, and twigs—which typically accounts for over 95% of adults' food by weight. Thus their diets vary greatly with the seasons. Hatchlings eat mostly insects and other invertebrates, gradually reducing their proportion of animal food to adult levels. Several of the forest-living species are notable for eating large quantities of conifer needles, which most other vertebrates refuse. To digest vegetable food, grouse have big crops and gizzards, eat grit to break up food, and have long intestines with well-developed caeca in which symbiotic bacteria digest cellulose.[6]

Forest species flock only in autumn and winter, though individuals tolerate each other when they meet. Prairie species are more social, and tundra species (ptarmigans, Lagopus) are the most social, forming flocks of up to 100 in winter. All grouse spend most of their time on the ground, though when alarmed, they may take off in a flurry and go into a long glide.[6]

Most species stay within their breeding range all year, but make short seasonal movements; many individuals of the ptarmigan (called rock ptarmigan in America) and willow grouse (called willow ptarmigan in America) migrate hundreds of kilometers.[6]


In all but one species (the Willow Ptarmigan), males are polygamous. Many species have elaborate courtship displays on the ground at dawn and dusk, which in some are given in leks. The displays feature males' bright-colored combs and in some species, bright-colored inflatable sacs on the sides of their necks. The males display their plumage, give vocalizations that vary widely between species, and may engage in other activities, such as drumming or fluttering their wings, rattling their tails, and making display flights. Occasionally, males fight.[6]

The nest is a shallow depressions on the ground, often in cover, with a scanty lining of plant material. The female lays one clutch, but may replace it if the eggs are lost. She begins to lay about a week after mating and lays one egg every day or two; the clutch comprises five to 12 eggs. The eggs have the shape of hen's eggs and are pale yellow, sparsely spotted with brown. On laying the second-last or last egg, the female starts 21 to 28 days of incubation. Chicks hatch in dense, yellow-brown down and leave the nest immediately. They soon develop feathers and can fly shortly before they are two weeks old. The female (and the male in the willow grouse) stays with them and protects them until their first autumn, when they reach their mature weights (except in the male Capercaillies). They are sexually mature the following spring, but often do not mate until later years.[6]


A ruffed grouse in Canada

Grouse make up a considerable part of the vertebrate biomass in the Arctic and Subarctic. Their numbers may fall sharply in years of bad weather or high predator populations—significant grouse populations are a major food source for lynx, foxes, martens, and birds of prey. However, because of their large clutches, they can recover quickly.

The three tundra species have maintained their former numbers. The prairie and forest species have declined greatly because of habitat loss, though popular game birds such as the red grouse and the ruffed grouse have benefited from habitat management. Most grouse species are listed by the IUCN as "least concern" or "near threatened", but the greater and lesser prairie chicken are listed as "vulnerable" and the Gunnison grouse is listed as "endangered". Some subspecies, such as Attwater's Prairie Chicken and the Cantabrian capercaillie, and some national and regional populations are also in danger.[6]

Sexual Size Dimorphism[edit]

Male Size Selection[edit]

The phenotypic difference between the males and females is called sexual dimorphism. Male grouse tend to be larger than female grouse. This same pattern seems to hold true across all the species of grouse, with some difference within each species itself in terms of how drastic the size difference is.[7] According to research, the evolution of sexual dimorphism through sexual selection hypothesis has the most supporting evidence.[7] Sexual selection acts on male size; the stronger this selecting force is, the larger increase in male size to a certain limit of size.[7] Female size will increase correspondingly, and this is due to heredity (but not to the extent of the male size).[7] This is because females that are smaller will still be able to reproduce without a substantial disadvantage, but this is not the case with males.[7]

Mating Behavior Selection[edit]

Males and females also differ in behavior. In male grouse, there is the behavior of lekking, which is when many males come together in one area and put on displays in order to attract females.[8] In this situation, the females selectively choose among the males present for traits they find more appealing.[8] There are two types of lekking that male grouse exhibit: exploded lekking (the territory is more expansive and has more variation) and typical lekking.[7] Male grouse can also compete with one another for access to female grouse through territoriality, in which a male defends a territory in which there are resources that females need, like food and nest sites.[7] These differences in mating systems are what account for the evolution of body size in grouse.[7] Males of territorial species were smaller than those of exploded lekking species, and males of typical lekking species were the largest overall.[7] The male birds that exhibit lekking behavior, and have to compete with other males for females to choose them, have higher sexual size dimorphism.[9] This supports the hypothesis of sexual selection affecting male body size and also gives an explanation for why some species of grouse have a more drastic difference between male and female body size than others.

Differences in Sexual Dimorphism Seen in Other Bird Species[edit]

Sexual size dimorphism manifests itself differently between grouse and other birds. With owls specifically, the female is dominant over the male in breeding behavior, which can explain why the females are larger than males.[10] Female owls are larger, while males are smaller in order to be more effective at hunting and defending the young.[10] Females also have the responsibility to feed the young with prey that the males have caught.[10]

In culture[edit]

Grouse are game, and hunters kill millions each year for food, sport, and other uses. In the United Kingdom this takes the form of driven grouse shooting. The male black grouse's tail feathers are a traditional ornament for hats in areas such as Scotland and the Alps. Folk dances from the Alps to the North American prairies imitate the displays of lekking males.[6]


Genus Falcipennis

Genus Dendragapus

Genus Lagopus – ptarmigans

Genus Tetrao – black grouse

Genus Tetrastes

Genus Bonasa

Genus Centrocercus – sage grouse

Genus Tympanuchus – prairie grouse



  1. ^ Gutiérrez, R. J.; Barrowclough, G. F.; Groth, J. G. (2000). "A classification of the grouse (Aves: Tetroninae) based on mitochondrial DNA sequences" (PDF). Wildlife Biology 6 (4): 205–212. 
  2. ^ "AOU Checklist of North and Middle American Birds". American Ornithologists' Union. Retrieved 2014-03-13. 
  3. ^ "Tetraoninae". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 2013-03-13. 
  4. ^ Boyd, John. "Phasianidae: Turkeys, Grouse, Pheasants, Partridges". Aves – A taxonomy in flux. Retrieved 2014-03-13. 
  5. ^ Rands, Michael R.W. (1991). Forshaw, Joseph, ed. Encyclopaedia of Animals: Birds. London: Merehurst Press. p. 91. ISBN 1-85391-186-0. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Storch, Ilse; Bendell, J. F. (2003). "Grouse". In Perrins, Christopher. The Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds. Firefly Books. pp. 184–187. ISBN 1-55297-777-3. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Drovetski, S. V.; Rohwer, S.; Mode, N. A. (2006). "Role of sexual and natural selection in evolution of body size and shape: a phylogenetic study of morphological radiation in grouse". Journal of Evolutionary Biology 19 (4): 1083–1091. 
  8. ^ a b Fiske, Peder; Rintamaki, Pekka; Karvonen, Eevi (1998). "Mating success in lekking males: a meta-analysis". Behavioral Ecology 9 (4): 328–338. 
  9. ^ Soulsbury, Carl D; Kervinen, Matti; Lebigre, Christophe (2014). "Sexual size dimorphism and the strength of sexual selection in mammals and birds". Evolutionary Ecology Research 16: 63–76. 
  10. ^ a b c Mueller, H.C. ". The Evolution of Reversed Sexual Dimorphism in Owls: An Empirical Analysis of Possible Selective Factors". The Wilson Bulletin 98 (3): 387–406. 


De Juana, E. (1994). "Family Tetraonidae (Grouse)". In del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A.; Sargatal, J. Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 2. New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. pp. 376–411. ISBN 84-87334-15-6. 

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