FEATURED SPECIES - GROUSE 

By Paul Dye

Ruffed Grouse Cock - Courtship Display

For years now I've been getting calls and letters inquiring about obtaining and raising grouse, and now, since publishing our website, I've been getting even more by e-mail. Most all have heard that grouse are more difficult than pheasants and quail to breed and keep, and are looking for "expert" advice. Well, I don't think you'll find any experienced and successful grouse breeders that will admit to being an expert. You certainly won't lure me into that trap. It's not that you can't be successful, because you can; you just have to be constantly attentive and able to "roll with the punches", changing tactics whenever new problems arise. The term "troubleshooting" used so extensively in science fields, is really ideal here, as success depends on the ability to analyze a problem and take immediate action to correct it.

In my approximately 12+ years of breeding and raising grouse I have had some success with three species: Ruffed, Blue and Willow Ptarmigan. I've also been keeping Franklin Spruce Grouse, but as yet with no breeding success. The only one I've been consistently successful in propagating every year is the Ruffed, partly because consistently getting new blood of the Blue and Willow has been almost impossible, leading to a dead-end, unless I'm willing to inbreed, which I'm not.

UNDERSTANDING GROUSE

The much touted difficulty in keeping grouse is probably a result of their lifestyles in the wild. Over thousands of years they have evolved to survive in isolated, pristine and relatively pollution-free habitats. They are ideally suited to thrive in a very unique set of environmental conditions to which they very gradually adapted. They seem to lack the "adaptive" qualities of mallards, ringneck pheasants, and many of the quail species. This is obvious from experiences in the wild that show how easily they're impacted by habitat changes, such as irresponsible levels of logging, development and pollution.

FACILITIES

So, the first step is to use the above understanding as your basis for designing and building your grouse keeping and breeding facilities. If you have a chance to visit one of the few consistently successful grouse breeders, by all means do so. You'll find that most, if not all, have separate facilities for rearing and breeding. The objective of this is to keep young grouse, whose immune systems have not yet "toughened up", away from parasites (such as worms, mites, etc) and bacteria as much as possible. This is accomplished by the use of wire-bottomed pens, especially designed for ease of cleaning and to keep all local predators away. The objective of the wire bottoms is to keep the grouse from contacting ground-borne earthworms, insects and rodents that are frequently the intermediate hosts for the parasites and bacteria that are so harmful. The details of the design of such facilities will of course depend on your local soil, weather, and predator conditions. Predators are an important consideration, as grouse can be easily lost as a result of explosively flying into the tops of their enclosures. Predators also can cause undue stress that manifests itself in increased sickness and reduced breeding success.

While I'm aware that some grouse breeders also utilize wire-bottomed facilities for breeding I am not one of those. I prefer to put my breeders on the ground for breeding season, knowing that this will require extra vigilance regarding cleanliness and necessitate occasional worming of those breeders. It's important if you plan to use this approach to start with clean ground, unused by other poultry or gamebird species that might have contaminated the site. This is because grouse have proven to be uniquely susceptible to pathogens that often are only a minor bother to these other species. Even from year to year, and if these facilities are only used for grouse breeding, it is imperative that they be thoroughly cleaned, sanitized and rodent proofed. I've found that using 4 to 6" of clean sand tends to be an effective way of discouraging earthworms, although it makes the task of landscaping the enclosures much more difficult. I've solved this problem by obtaining a truckload of unsold christmas trees each holiday season and using them to decorate and provide nesting cover in my pens the following spring. They also serve the need to provide secluded hiding places for the females when their pen-mates tend to get overly amorous.

A frequently asked question regards the size facilities I use and recommend. My rearing/holding pens run from 2'X3' to 2'X4' and are designed for easy cleaning, and to accommodate 1 grouse, although I usually put 2 in each initially with a heat lamp when they're first moved outdoors from our brooding facilities. Having one of their brooder mates with them seems to reduce the stress of first experiencing the out-of-doors, with it's day and night cycles. I then separate them into their own individual quarters after about 2 weeks, before any serious aggression begins.

My breeding facilities are considerably larger, averaging 10' by 25' in size. In each of these about 1/4 is covered with solid roofing to protect both the feed dishes and the birds themselves from heavy storms. Perches are installed in easy to clean locations within the pen, with one always beneath the roofed portion. I used to landscape these pens extensively, but have found annual pre-spring total cleaning to be eased by the use of the surplus christmas trees mentioned earlier. I've found this design to be ideal in my rain-forest setting and climate for the species I've bred so-far.

Breeding Pen in Rainforest Setting

I've found a real advantage to including one of my smaller wire-bottomed rearing/holding pens within my breeding pens during the spring breeding season, especially when first putting a breeder pair together. In almost half of all pairs initially put together one of the pair will be aggressive to the other, and the smaller pen is used to isolate the aggressor until the other partner gets his/her bearings and is able to defend his/her self.

FEED & MEDICATION

I personally believe that these are 2 areas where many new grouse aviculturists tend to go overboard, at least for a while. I know I did. I used to supplement my grouse ration with fruit, peanuts and greens daily, thinking this would promote increased good health. It took a couple of years before I convinced myself that the fruit sugars were occasionally causing yeast infections in their sinuses, and the peanuts, while relished, were training them to search out and eat peanut shaped rocks, which if just a little too big, impacted their gizzard, occasionally causing death. Both of these caused me to think I was doing something extra for my birds, but proved to be unnecessary and even harmful. I still however give some greens to my grouse, especially during breeding season, and to give them an extra treat to look forward to. An ideal green has proven to be the common dandelion leaf and you'll soon find them at the gate waiting for their gift. This has the added benefit of being a good way to check their condition, as a sick grouse is in no mood for treats.

Many commercial feeds are now so carefully formulated that they are just fine for grouse. I have had good results using standard Purina Game Bird feeds. I use their Startena for brooding, their Layena for breeders, and their Flight Conditioner for growing birds. I haven't found feed medicated with amprolium to be necessary, but you may want to consider its use if you experience outbreaks of coccidiosis.

You'll hear that it's necessary to start grouse on live food, and that's what I used for many years. A couple of years ago I started working on presenting commercial starter feed in a way that it occasionally appears live to newly hatched grouse. Something as simple as lining the brooder with soft paper toweling causes feed scattered on the toweling around the feed dish to move when a chick passes. This movement entices any nearby chicks to grab the feed thinking it's live. Within a few days they're all eating from the dish.

If a grouse appears listless and puffed up or refuses to fly up to it's favorite perch it's probably sick or wormy. A check for worms entails taking a fecal sample to your vet for analysis. If no worm eggs are noted then it's a safe bet that your dealing with either a bacterial or viral problem. I never medicate my grouse unless they are ill, or sharing a pen with one that is, and I rarely medicate or worm grouse by putting the treatment in their drinking water. This is because frequently grouse will not use their water founts for several days, preferring to get their moisture from the green foods they eat. I prefer to treat by either injecting or orally administering the proper medication. I also enjoy having my grouse stay tame rather than flighty, so I administer all medications late at night by simply removing the bird from it's roost, giving it the medication, and then returning it to it's perch before it's fully awake. The next day it doesn't even remember the experience.

PREDATORS

Dealing with your local ground and avian predators is critically important to reduce losses due to stress and injury. Even the tamest birds will be reluctant to breed if during some part of the day or night they are harassed by a natural enemy. My predator control consists of burying peripheral fencing at least 18" below ground and surrounding my aviary area with electric fencing 18" off the ground and 1.5" from the fence. I also run electric fencing along the top to prevent owls and hawks, and even my peafowl from scaring my grouse. These measures greatly reduce the incidence of grouse flying against the pen top or side, resulting in injury. If a particularly stubborn raccoon or opossum still patrols your fence line, then humane removal using cat food bait and a box trap may be required.

Although rare, on occasion a dog, coyote, fox, bobcat, or in our case, even a cougar or bear may establish a regularly traveled trail close to your grouse aviaries. This has the effect of shattering the birds security without causing any direct threat, and can result in their not attempting to nest.  In this case they can be discouraged by installing a few outward radiating electric fence wires connected to your peripheral electric fence, about 18" above ground, and extending out 25 or more feet.

BREEDING

I will only address Ruffed and Blue Grouse and Willow Ptarmigan, as these are the only species I have propagated to date. All of these make simple scrapes in the pen soil, which in my case is about 6" of sand. While the Ruffed and Willows will nest either in the open in a pen corner, or under or behind shrubs, Blues almost always nest in a well concealed place under vegetation or behind a partition. I suspect that if you try to breed them on wire you would have to provide a nest site such as a kitty-litter box containing about 2" of sand and similarly located.

If you wish to encourage more than the normal clutch size of 5 to 12 eggs you can attempt to do so by numbering the eggs as they are laid with a pencil, and removing the earliest, always leaving two in the nest to encourage continued laying. It doesn't always work, but sometimes you succeed. Best hatches occur if you don't store them more than 5 days. I always get the best hatches using natural incubation, either under a small broody bantam hen or the female grouse, providing nothing startles her off the nest. It's important, however to keep track of the incubation period and remove them to a mechanical hatcher a day prior to hatching to avoid exposure to any parasites or pathogens the hen may be carrying.

REARING

Raising young grouse is not overly difficult if you pay close attention to 4 parameters: eating, temperature, cleanliness, and later on aggression.

Eating: This we covered earlier under diet, and the spreading of the starter feed on paper toweling usually results in a successful start, as long as the chicks are gradually enticed to the feed dish. After a few days, if you feel compelled to do something extra, you can try finely chopped (clean) dandelion. Some breeders supplement their feed with mealworms cut in half, although on occasion it can be hard to get them off this treat later, and I don't feel mealworms provide a balanced diet.

Temperature: Like most upland gamebirds, grouse do well if started at 95 degrees F, and lowered 5 degrees each week for the first 3 weeks. An exception would be the Ptarmigan species, which do to their naturally colder environment ca have their temperature lowered slightly faster.

Cleanliness: This one's really important if you're to raise your young grouse to maturity. The paper toweling I start them on is changed 2 to 3 times a day until they are large enough to be gradually introduced to wire-bottomed pens. At this time unnecessary foot nicks and infections can be kept to a minimum by using vinyl-coated wire, which is also easier to clean. While they're still on the paper toweling it's important to check their feet at least twice a day to make sure there is not a build-up of manure sticking to them. They are usually easy to clean, although if you neglect it too long you may have to moisten a bit of toweling to soften it.

Aggression:  This is often a major problem with your young grouse as fall approaches and the normal dispersal period begins. It is one that can be easily avoided by separating your young birds when about 3/4ths of full size. It is at this time of year that I must maintain a good number of small enclosures until the surplus can be visually sexed and shipped.

IN CONCLUSION

While I wouldn't recommend grouse for beginners to game bird breeding, they are certainly not as impossible as many people will lead you to believe. For continued success year-after-year you need to always maintain a small surplus to your next years needs. This is because grouse are occasionally subject to a partial "die-off" due to parasites or pathogens introduced either by earthworms, rodents, or your own feet. Don't let yourself get discouraged, these die-offs seem to occur also in the wild, often contributing to the natural up-and-down cycles in grouse populations. Be emotionally prepared for downs as well as ups, and be ever vigilant for early signs of illness and predator problems. You can succeed.

Take a look elsewhere in this website for frequently asked questions about purchasing, keeping and breeding grouse.

Paul & Lynn Dye
Northwest Wildfowl Farm
10114 54th Place N.E., Everett, WA 98205 USA

Phone:(425)334-8223 Fax:(425)397-8136
E-mail: dye@greatnorthern.net

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