Dusky grouse – aka ‘the crazy chicken’

June 3, 2024
A male Dusky grouse in display mode on the Hunter Creek Cutoff.

A male Dusky grouse in display mode on the Hunter Creek Cutoff.

Among birds on Pitkin County’s open spaces, the Dusky grouse has a reputation like no other. Encounters with this upland game bird can be memorable.

Trail users escaping the wrath of a male Dusky grouse tend to break into a panicked run, shrieking in alarm at a pursuer they will later describe to friends as a “crazy chicken” (if they admit to being scared witless by a bird at all). Some communities have actually posted warning signs to give trail users a heads-up about a particularly hostile grouse.

Hens with chicks can be equally fierce, prompting many a hiker to shamelessly back away.

One of our encounters with a male Dusky on Smuggler Mountain Open Space began peacefully enough but ended with the requisite chase. While we remained stationary in the woods along the Smuggler Loop Trail, the grouse circled curiously, offering a series of low clucks. Once we began walking away, the bird gave chase. The retreat turned into a 50-yard dash with a furious, pecking bird in hot pursuit.

“They can be highly territorial – against everybody,” wildlife biologist Jonathan Lowsky confirmed. Lowsky, with Colorado Wildlife Science, monitors wildlife on various Pitkin County open spaces and has found Dusky grouse at Sky Mountain Park, North Star Nature Preserve and Filoha Meadows Nature Preserve, as well as Smuggler. They likely inhabit other open spaces, as well.

Dusky grouse are “generalists,” meaning they can eat a variety of foods and thrive in a range of habitats. They are doing well in Colorado, as a result, while the Gunnison sage grouse, for example, is federally listed as threatened due to loss of habitat. The rare and localized bird is found only in southwest Colorado and a small part of adjacent Utah. Meanwhile, Greater sage grouse numbers are also in decline and the species is no longer found in the Roaring Fork Valley, though old-timers can recall its former presence here.

The Dusky grouse, Merriam wild turkey and White-tailed ptarmigan are all members of the same family of heavy ground birds (Phasianidae). Pitkin County is home to all three species.

Like many ground birds, Dusky grouse (Dendragapus obscurus) sport inconspicuous plumage that allows them to blend in with the forest. Males, however, will “display” during courtship – a trait shared by most grouse. In spring and early summer, the male will strut about with its tail raised and fanned, and reveal reddish-purple air sacks on its neck as he tries to attract a mate. His muted-yellow eye comb will swell to a rich yellow, orange or red.

The mating spectacle offers a unique opportunity to spot this otherwise well-camouflaged bird, but if a chicken-sized, mottled brown bird chases you down the trail or shoots suddenly upward out of the underbrush, you have likely met the Dusky grouse.

More to know about Dusky grouse

– By Pitkin County Open Space and Trails

A male dusky grouse blends into the forest on Smuggler Mountain Open Space

A male dusky grouse blends into the forest on Smuggler Mountain Open Space. The faint eye comb is visible.