Moorfowl is Fair, in Highland Heather

Red Grouse:  Moorfowl is Fair, in Highland Heather

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

“For the king of Israel is come out to seek a flea, as when one doth hunt a partridge in the mountains.” (1st Samuel 26:20b)

As noted in a previous blogpost, in “Fowl are Fair on Day 5”, the Holy Bible’s  “partridge” (which is mentioned in 1st Samuel 26:20) is a type of galliform (i.e., chicken/partridge/quail/pheasant/turkey/peafowl-like ground-dwelling bird.

Other examples of galliforms include the partridge-like birds we call “grouse”. (See also “Rock Partridges:  Lessons about Hunting and Hatching”.

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RED GROUSE in Scotland   (Simply Birds and Moths photograph)

The RED GROUSE is a variety of fast-flying WILLOW PTARMIGAN, often camouflaged within Scotland’s heather scrublands, sporting reddish-brown plumage (with white feathered legs underneath, that somewhat resemble rabbit feet!), yet accented by scarlet “eyebrows”.   It is often hunted in Scotland, by humans as part of a regulated sport, as well as by birds of prey, to the extent that they are present in Scotland heather moors.

The Red Grouse has been described as follows:

“The Red Grouse … of the British Isles [is] a race of the Willow Ptarmigan … coloured entirely chestnut-brown, winter as well as summer. [It] presses itself low to the ground when danger threatens. … [Its habitat is] open taiga, bushy tundra, marshes and moors with willow, birch and dwarf scrub; generally at lower altitudes than [other varieties of] Ptarmigan.  … [For food, it eat] leaves, buds and berries of dwarf shrubs, especially billberries, cranberries and crowberries; in winter buds and leaves of dwarf birch; in order to get at their food plants, the birds dig long tunnels in the snow.  Red Grouse eats mainly heather shoots.”

[Quoting Jürgen Nicolai, Detlef Singer, & Konrad Wothe, BIRDS OF BRITAIN & EUROPE (Harper Collins/Collin  Nature Guides, 2000; translated from German & adapted by Ian Dawson), page 144.]

Red Grouse, as well as other varieties of Willow Ptarmigan, are ground-fowl found in cool scrublands of Earth’s northern habitats, in lands as widespread as Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Canada, and Alaska. [See Wikipedia-posted range map of the Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), with indigo blue showing year-round residency ranges.]

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   Range Map for Willow Ptarmigans  (Wikipedia)

In fact, the Willow Ptarmigan is Alaska’s official state bird, specifically the winter-white-dominated Lagopus lagopus alascensis variety.

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Willow Ptarmigan (Alaska variety) in winter white   [Wikipedia/public domain]

The reddish-brown plumage of the RED CROUSE is well-suited for residing in the heather fields of Scotland. Of course, despite its helpful camouflage, the Red Grouse is a resident well known to Scottish Highland hunters!

“As the rail network opened up the Highlands in the late 19th century, so it because possible for many more people to come from the south to join shooting parties on moors specifically managed for red grouse.  . . . The long-term decline in grouse numbers  [especially Scotland’s RED GROUSE (Lagopus lagopus scotica), a Scottish variety of Willow Ptarmigan, a/k/a “Moorfowl”,  a ground-fowl accustomed to heather-moor habitat] began in the 1930s – way before birds of prey began to recover [in Scotland, from] egg collectors and keepers [i.e., wildlife-regulating game wardens].  This, in part, is related to the loss of high-quality moorland to [agricultural] grass as sheep densities have increased.”

[Quoting Niall Benvie, “Red Grouse”, in SCOTLAND’S WILDLIFE (National Trust of Scotland, via Aurum Press, 2004), page 28.]

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RED GROUSE in Scottish heather moorland   (Scottish Nature Heritage)

Of course, the Red Grouse is wild, so it is fair game – pardon the pun – to be photographed by nature photographers, such as Niall Benvie, Scottish author of THE ART OF NATURE PHOTOGRAPHY (and other similar books). Once Mr. Benvie was preparing to photograph a strolling Red Grouse, as he recalls:

 “I once met such a bird [i.e., a Red Grouse] in a quiet glen near [my] home.  As I edged my car closer [preparing my camera to take a photograph of the grouse], I was grateful that, for once, my subject [i.e., the Red Grouse who was approaching] wasn’t camera-shy.  I glanced in the rearview mirror only to see, to my dismay, a woman walking up the narrow road behind me.  As she passed the car I withdrew my camera and prepared to leave [ — assuming that her approach would frighten off the grouse, thus spoiling my opportunity to photograph the avian pedestrian].”

[Quoting Niall Benvie, “Red Grouse”, in SCOTLAND’S WILDLIFE (National Trust of Scotland, via Aurum Press, 2004), page 28.]

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RED GROUSE on Scottish roadway   (Scottish Gamekeepers Association photograph)

Of course, as a wildlife photographer, Niall Benvie is bothered by human intrusions into the “wild” world of this tranquil ground-fowl. If the Red Grouse doesn’t bother humans, why should humans interfere with the Red Grouse’s habitat in the Highlands?  Yet this perspective has its flaws, as the following anecdotal report (from Niall Benvie) illustrates.

“But the grouse, rather than [squawking] loudly and whirring off over the moor, began walking up the road to meet her. He [i.e., the Red Grouse] pecked furiously at her [shoe]-laces, and she bent down, picked him up and held him in her arms!  She was the local keeper’s wife [i.e., game warden’s wife], and [she] knew this first year bird well [and obviously the bird knew well that he could trust her to pick him up caringly].

[Quoting Niall Benvie, “Red Grouse”, in SCOTLAND’S WILDLIFE (National Trust of Scotland, via Aurum Press, 2004), page 28.]

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RED GROUSE in Northumberland field   (Hawsen Burn photograph)

Although that one-year-old Red Grouse was “wild”, it obviously remembered some kind of kindness form the game warden’s wife.

So much for condemning the meddling “interference” of kind-hearted humans!