Black Grouse

It’s ‘pistols at dawn’ pretty much every single day in whatever weather for the male species of this upland bird…

by Mark Cureton |
Published on

Scientific name: Tetrao tetrix

Length: 40-55cm

Wingspan: 65-80cm

UK numbers: <5,100 breeding males

Habitat: Farmland/moorland

Diet: Berries, buds, shoots, catkins

Do you ever wake up in the morning and think “Oh no, not again”? Does the idea of fulfilling the day’s repetitive drudgery, whatever it might be, fill you with heavy loathing?

Of course it does; it’s a familiar, almost universal human condition. Whether it’s returning to the office screens, washing the family’s clothes or facing the complicated school day, few, if any, of us relish facing again and again the same old challenges of our existence, day in, day out.

So, spare a thought for the Black Grouse. Few birds have quite such an unbending routine, which places great demands upon their energy and resources. Few birds live on such a treadmill that it demands they report to a single place for much of the year. Few birds must face such intolerable deflation at their place of ‘work.’ Next time you feel trapped by life, just be glad you aren’t a member of this species.

It’s autumn, and many birds of all stripes now are waking up each day to a life that has changed much since the spring. A few months back they were busily engaged upon their own gruelling breeding regimes, singing, nest-building, incubating and feeding chicks. The summer was their free time. With nests emptied, there was space to moult and food was available everywhere. Into early autumn, many began to embark on the adventure of migration. Others settled into flocks, spending their day feeding, but largely unencumbered.

But for Black Grouse males, the new days of autumn simply heralded ‘in with the old.’ After a month of moulting in July, the millstone around their neck returned. Routine re-emerged with a vengeance.

It is the relatively nondescript female, or Greyhen, which does the mate choosing ©Malcolm Schuyl/Alamy

Lek meeting place

What, you might ask, is the great Black Grouse encumbrance? The answer is its mating system, which is technically known as a lek. A lek is a meeting place of rival males, which female Black Grouse visit in season in order to mate. The season itself, early spring onwards, is probably quite exciting, as each day there is the possibility that females will visit. For the rest of the year, however, males still meet at the lek in order to spar, posture and compare.

That means that, almost every morning at dawn, they are there at loggerheads, standing at the edge of a chilly moorland and throwing themselves into postures, feathers ruffled, wings drooped and slightly open and tail raised in a fan. I have seen them myself in heavy rain and sleet, when any sense other than the urge to breed would usher them sensibly to the shelter of the woodlands.

Their season starts in August. In September, the autumn leks are at their busiest, and they are still humming in October and November. Midwinter may be quiet, but the juices rise sharply from then on to reach a crescendo in April.

It seems strange to be displaying to absent females in September, but the fact is that the meetings on the lek are closer to male clubs – except, they aren’t clubby at all. The idea is that the males that turn up each morning and bicker among themselves for the central territory, the choicest territory, on the arena.

This can go on for months. It is a form of self-selection, and potentially a brutal meritocracy. Over time, the best male in the lek gets to occupy the largest, most central position. That means, generally, that the best bird, with the bluest plumage, the brightest red eye comb and the longest tail is the one that wins out.

However, a great deal can happen between August and April. Some birds will die, some will become ill; all sorts of mishaps may occur. The lek hierarchy is potentially fluid. Birds can move up in rank, edging toward the central position. It pays to keep attending. But can you imagine the routine? It might have been a fierce autumn or winter night in the uplands in Wales, northern England or Scotland. The light of pre-dawn summons the grouse to the freezing arena, which in Russia is sometimes on ice. Here they gather. One imagines that they must, at times, feel reluctant to join in. They don’t gather for fun. Testosterone drives their interactions and they display to compete.

Male Black Grouse are highly sedentary, the males hardly dispersing. The lek occupants see the same old faces, morning after morning. They see birds in superior condition. They know that, unless things change, most birds won’t get any breeding action in the season to come. For an hour or two they spar, sometimes longer.

Jumping and jostling

The males make a mellifluous cooing sound, like a pigeon in a hurry, interspersed with explosive hisses; somebody has cleverly compared this to hot springs bubbling and boiling over. They fight, the Black Grouse jump and they jostle. Later in the day, the same males might feed together in a flock. But they will be sworn enemies the following morning.

As spring approaches, the urge to be on the lek increases, so much so that the birds often gather again in the evening each day for a couple of hours, as well. The seemingly unending bandwagon plays on.

The trouble is, if you get off the train, it carries on without you. You need to be there, day after day, even if you don’t wish to. One of the keys to mating success, in terms of the number of copulations with visiting females, is lek attendance. Absenteeism is failure. When the females arrive, your record elevates you; the hard, cold yards add up to potential paternity.

The winners are the central, long-tailed birds that do the most lyre-tail-up displays. They control the largest territories by area. They have proven their persistence, competence and commitment to breeding. The prize is priceless.

The females, meanwhile, are seeking the best mate and the self-selection helps them to make an informed choice. Towards the peak of the breeding season, in May, they will spend hours perching nearby and watching the goings on at the lek, or perhaps several leks. They select exactly the males with the best characteristics.

Once they have decided, they often fly straight to their preferred male’s territory, inducing a frenzy of display from the territory owner and its neighbours. The business of the visit may take less than fifteen minutes, from touch down to post-coital departure.

In an act that might dismay the rest of the lek, the females will usually choose the same mate that they chose last year, which is a cruel short cut after all the hard work the males have done. But again, it shows that commitment works.

And that is the Black Grouse’s lot. Endless displaying, grind and hope, if birds can hope, followed for the majority by failure and impotence.

No wonder there are some that break ranks. These are the individualists. Not for them the direct competition; they display on their own arena on their own terms, and they take what they can get. Presumably, they sometimes influence a hen to copulate with them, if circumstances allow. Sometimes, late interlopers break into the lek structure and manage to get lucky; perhaps these are former individualists.

Either way, you can understand the soloists’ motivation. The male Black Grouse’s lot is a tough one. There are always those who try to cut corners. And maybe their potential chances, albeit small, are enough to get them up in the morning.

Where to see them

Found in upland areas of Wales, the Pennines and most of Scotland. Seen on farmland and moorland with nearby forestry or scattered trees. Males display at traditional ‘lek’ sites.

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