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All 10 Grouse and Partridges in Montana

grouse and partridges in montana
Sage Grouse in Deer Lodge, Montana: Photo by Steve Wickliffe

Introduction

Montana’s diverse landscape provides a habitat for various species of grouse and partridges belonging to the Phasianidae family. From the dense forests to the open grasslands, these birds navigate a range of environments throughout the state. Renowned for their striking plumage and unique mating rituals, they play an integral role in Montana’s ecosystem. Understanding their behavior and habitat preferences is crucial for conservation efforts in preserving Montana’s rich avian biodiversity.

Grouse and Partridges in Montana

Jump to a species!

Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)

  • Features: Wild Turkeys are sizable and unmistakeable birds, boasting plump bodies, elongated legs, wide tails with rounded edges, and a petite head atop a slender neck. Their appearance is predominantly dark, adorned with a bronze-green shimmer across most of their feathers. Their wings exhibit a dark hue, prominently patterned with white bars. Rusty or white tips accentuate their rump and tail feathers. The exposed skin on their head and neck ranges in color from red to blue to gray.
  • Behavior: Turkeys move together in groups, scouring the ground for nuts, berries, insects, and snails. Employing their robust feet, they scratch away leaf litter to uncover their food. During the onset of spring, male turkeys congregate in open spaces to engage in courtship rituals. They inflate their body feathers, spread their tails into a vertical fan, and saunter leisurely while emitting their distinctive gobbling sound. After dusk, turkeys take to the trees, roosting in clusters for the night.
  • Habitat: Wild Turkeys inhabit mature forests, favoring areas abundant with nut-bearing trees like oak, hickory, or beech, often surrounded by clearings and fields. They can also be spotted near roadsides and within wooded residential areas. Following their depletion from significant portions of their habitat due to hunting, turkeys have been successfully reintroduced and have reclaimed their numbers.
  • Range: Fairly common throughout the year across the entire state.

Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus)

  • Features: Ruffed Grouse are relatively petite members of the grouse family, characterized by a concise, triangular crest atop their heads and a lengthy, fan-like tail. Their legs are short, and they typically present a sleeker appearance compared to other grouse varieties. These birds display a sophisticated pattern of dark bars and spots against a backdrop of either reddish-brown or grayish plumage. The dark bars extending from the neck down the sides continue and broaden along the belly. Their tails feature fine barring, with a prominent wide, black band near the tip.
  • Behavior: Keep an eye out for Ruffed Grouse as they scour the forest floor for seeds and insects. During courtship displays, male grouse produce a resonant drumming sound by vigorously flapping their wings while perched on a log. During the spring months, solitary individuals are commonly observed, while in summer, females with their young broods are frequently spotted. In winter, these birds congregate in flocks and frequently feed on the buds of deciduous trees.
  • Habitat: Ruffed Grouse typically inhabit the interiors of mixed forests containing both deciduous and coniferous trees, often with intermittent clearings. They can also be found near wooded streams and in areas undergoing regeneration after fires or logging activities.
  • Range: Ruffed Grouse are fairly regular year-round, mostly in Montana’s western half.

Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)

  • Features: The Greater Sage Grouse boasts a substantial physique, characterized by a plump, rounded body, diminutive head, and elongated tail. During displays, males undergo a striking transformation, nearly doubling in size as they inflate their chest, droop their wings, and spread their tail feathers into a radiant starburst. These grouse exhibit a mottled gray-brown plumage with a contrasting black belly. Males sport a black head and throat, while their breast features a fluffy white ruff encircling a pair of inflatable, yellow air sacs during courtship rituals. Females are distinguished by a dusky cheek patch highlighted by white markings behind the eye.
  • Behavior: Throughout much of the year, Greater Sage Grouse maintain a low profile, foraging quietly on sagebrush and other ground-level vegetation. However, from March to May, male sage grouse engage in intricate strutting displays on designated areas of bare ground known as leks. Females assemble to assess these displays and select their preferred mates.
  • Habitat: Greater Sage Grouse epitomize the sagebrush steppe ecosystem of the intermountain West, exclusively inhabiting this unique habitat. While they are prevalent throughout the sagebrush plains, they are particularly sensitive to disturbances. During the early spring, they congregate on specific areas of open ground called leks, where males perform elaborate displays to attract females.
  • Range: Greater Sage Grouse uncommon residents through the whole year in Montana’s eastern half.

Dusky Grouse (Dendragapus obscurus)

  • Features: This robust, chicken-like bird features a compact body, a short bill, sturdy legs, and a moderately long tail capable of fanning into a semicircle. Both males and females exhibit intricate camouflage patterns of brown, gray, white, and black. Males are distinguished by dark gray tails and blue-gray underparts. During courtship displays, males showcase purplish-red air sacs on their necks, while their eye combs swell and transition to a vibrant yellow or red hue.
  • Behavior: Dusky Grouse dedicate a significant portion of their day to rest and nourishment. They search for food both on the ground, where they consume plants and insects, and in trees, where they feed on leaves, needles, and buds, particularly during the winter months. During the early spring, males engage in displays, often from perches in trees or close to the ground. They execute brief flights and conduct strutting exhibitions on the ground to attract mates.
  • Habitat: Montane forests, comprising hemlock, ponderosa pine, fir, and Douglas-fir, are accompanied by nearby open expanses of bunchgrass, sagebrush, and subalpine environments.
  • Range: Uncommon through most of the year, found mainly in Montana’s eastern half. They are slightly more common in the state between April and October.

Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus)

  • Features: This stout, chicken-like bird features a petite head, small bill, short legs, and a moderately long, tapered tail. Its plumage displays a mottled pattern of brown, gold, white, and black, with white undertail coverts and a pale lower belly.
  • Behavior: Sharp-tailed Grouse utilize both ground and tree habitats for foraging. On the ground, they peck at seeds, grains, and insects, while in trees, they consume buds, flowers, and berries. They exhibit robust flight capabilities, traversing several miles between roosting and feeding sites. During the mating season, males congregate on specific courtship grounds known as leks. Here, they engage in rapid-stepping displays, vocalize, and frequently engage in confrontations.
  • Habitat: Grasslands and prairies punctuated by thick shrubbery characterize the southern range, while bog margins and clearings amid boreal forests define the northern habitat. During winter, they typically inhabit croplands and seek refuge in areas sheltered from harsh weather, often among taller shrubs and trees.
  • Range: Sharp-tailed Grouse are common to uncommon residents in most of Montana throughout the whole year.

White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura)

  • Features: White-tailed Ptarmigan are plump birds reminiscent of chickens, featuring short necks, small heads, and bills, along with large, feathered feet. Their wings are short and rounded. During winter, they adopt a predominantly white plumage, except for their dark eyes and bills. As spring approaches and extends into fall, their winter coat gradually transforms into a nuanced blend of dark and pale brown, offering exceptional camouflage against foliage and rocky terrain. Their tails retain their white coloring throughout the year, setting them apart from other ptarmigan species. Breeding males showcase distinctive bright red lines above their eyes, known as “eye combs,” which they utilize during courtship displays.
  • Behavior: White-tailed Ptarmigan engage in slow-paced foraging, primarily consuming plant matter and insects sourced from the ground and low-lying vegetation.
  • Habitat: During the majority of the year, White-tailed Ptarmigan inhabit high-elevation alpine habitats situated above the treeline. However, as fall arrives, they gradually descend to lower elevations, seeking refuge within the treeline to withstand the harsh conditions of winter.
  • Range: White-tailed Ptarmigans are quite rare in Montana, with the best chances of seeing them being during the summer months in the far northwest of the state, particularly in and around Flathead National Forest and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

Spruce Grouse (Canachites canadensis)

  • Features: This robust, chicken-like bird features a diminutive bill, sturdy yet short legs, and a moderately long tail capable of fanning into a semicircle. Females exhibit a mottled pattern of brown, gray, gold, black, and white, while males share a similar patterning above but with a darker blackish hue, often accompanied by varying degrees of white feathering below.
  • Behavior: Spruce Grouse primarily feed on the ground, consuming small plants, fungi, and insects, or in coniferous trees, where they predominantly nibble on fresh needles, constituting their main diet throughout most of the year. They are predominantly observed walking rather than taking flight. During the spring, males engage in a strutting display to attract females.
  • Habitat: Found primarily in the evergreen forests of the northern and western mountain regions, particularly among spruce, jack pine, and lodgepole pine stands, Spruce Grouse exhibit a preference for younger, regenerating areas characterized by dense understory vegetation rather than mature old-growth forests.
  • Range: Best seen between July and October in Montana’s far eastern parts, Spruce Grouse are generally uncommon in the state.

Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix)

  • Features: This chubby, chicken-like bird features a rounded body, a petite head, a stubby tail, and a short, stout bill. Its flight is characterized by short and rounded wings. The upperparts are predominantly gray, complemented by a tan to orange face and rusty stripes along the sides. Below, it sports a grey plumage with a rusty tail and a brown horseshoe-shaped patch on the breast, typically more pronounced in males.
  • Behavior: This bird scavenges on the ground in compact groups comprising adults and their young. It advances by thrusting its head forward and flicking its tail while walking, occasionally darting in a low crouch. When startled, it swiftly takes flight, skimming just above the ground with rapid wing flaps.
  • Habitat: In North America, this species is predominantly found in cultivated fields and grasslands adorned with hedgerows.
  • Range: Introduced to North America from Europe in the early 20th century, these game birds are now pretty common all over Montana all through the year.

Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)

  • Features: The Ring-necked Pheasant is a sizable bird reminiscent of a chicken, characterized by a lengthy, tapered tail. It possesses relatively long legs, a diminutive head, an elongated neck, and a robust body. Male Ring-necked Pheasants display vibrant plumage, featuring red faces, an iridescent green neck adorned with a prominent white ring, and a remarkably long, coppery tail marked with slender black bars. In contrast, females exhibit a more subdued appearance, with brown plumage and paler scaling on the upperparts, along with buff or cinnamon underparts featuring black spotting on the sides. Additionally, thin black bars adorn their tails.
  • Behavior: They scavenge for food on the ground within fields, consuming leftover grain, various seeds, and insects when accessible. Ring-necked Pheasants typically traverse by walking or running, reserving flight as a last resort, typically when startled at close proximity by humans or other predators. Males emit a resounding, cackling display that carries over considerable distances.
  • Habitat: Ring-necked Pheasants thrive in agricultural landscapes intertwined with patches of dense vegetation, providing them with ample cover. Keep an eye out for them along rural roadsides, in overgrown or recently harvested fields, and amidst brushy areas and hedgerows.
  • Range: These pheasants were introduced in the 1880s from Asia and can be easily found at any time anywhere in Montana.

Chukar Partridge (Alectoris chukar)

  • Features: Chukars are game birds resembling chickens, featuring a well-rounded body, short legs, and a petite, circular head. During flight, their tails appear square, while their wings are broad and rounded. Their sandy brown plumage is adorned with striking vertical black bars along the sides. A dark band extending from the eyes encircles the white cheeks and throat. Completing their appearance, they boast a red bill and eyering.
  • Behavior: Chukars prefer to navigate on the ground, displaying a preference for walking or running over flying. They effortlessly scamper up rocky inclines and hop from one rock to another, often surpassing human speed. When startled, they swiftly take flight with a piercing squeal.
  • Habitat: Chukars inhabit steep, rocky grasslands and shrublands located in remote and rugged terrain, challenging to navigate. Additionally, they frequent dry pasture lands and sagebrush flats in the Western regions.
  • Range: Native to the Middle East and Asia and introduced to North America, Chukar Partridges are highly uncommon in Montana with only a few hundred records.

Threats and Conservation

Birds in Montana face numerous threats to their survival, including habitat loss, climate change, pollution, and human disturbance. Conservation efforts are crucial to mitigate these challenges and ensure the protection of Montana’s bird populations. Organizations such as the Montana Audubon and the Montana Bird Conservation Partnership (MBCP) are actively involved in conservation initiatives across the state. Through habitat restoration, public education, and advocacy, these organizations strive to safeguard the diverse bird species that call Montana home. Their collaborative efforts highlight the importance of preserving the natural heritage of Montana’s birds for future generations.

Conclusion

The grouse and partridges of Montana represent not only icons of the state’s wild beauty but also indicators of its ecological health. As we continue to navigate the complex challenges of habitat degradation and climate change, it becomes increasingly imperative to prioritize the conservation of these remarkable birds. By supporting organizations dedicated to their protection and fostering a deeper understanding of their importance, we can ensure that Montana’s avian treasures endure for generations to come, enriching our lives and the natural world around us.