Commonly referred to simply as the Capercaillie, the Western Capercaillie is skittish and shy despite being the largest woodland grouse. It should not be confused with the similar Black-billed Capercaillie which resides solely in central and eastern Russia.
Capercaillie, Wood Grouse
The adult male is a large, predominantly black and dark grey coloured member of the grouse family. The head and neck are black vermiculated with a mid grey colour and the back and rump is a dark grey. Upperwings are brown and the tail is black with white speckles. The upper breast is a dark green gloss over black and there is a conspicuous bold white spot on the shoulder. A prominent bright red wattle surrounds the sides and top of each eye. On the chin and throat area there are spiky black feathers giving the appearance of a beard. The lower chest, belly area and vent are mainly white, dependent on sub-species, with black splashes and the underwings are white. Legs are feathered and mid brown in colour. The bill is white, short and thick, with the upper mandible hooked over the lower. Adult females are much smaller than males with a broad ginger orange chest and upper body, the latter being barred with dark brown markings. There are white patches on the flanks and belly accompanied by brown and black bars. The tail is orange crossed with dark bars. There is a thin red ‘eyebrow’ above each eye.
Close up of a Capercaillie
During the breeding season, particularly whilst males are lekking (engaged in displays with which to attract females) the male makes a loud croaking and clicking sound, frequently repeated and finished with a pop reminiscent of a champagne cork leaving a bottle! At other times the males can be heard to crow in a pheasant like fashion similar to ‘coorcok – coorcok’.
Western capercaillies feed on pines needles and berries, particularly juniper, bilberry and blackberry. They also take herbs, grasses, leaves and shoots and occasionally insects.
Capercaillie from behind
This is basically a sedentary and resident bird with small numbers overwintering in the south of their regions. There are eight subspecies of the western capercaillie with marginal differences between each, mainly confined to size and subtle changes in plumage. The bird is found from Scandinavia and Finland in the west of Europe, south to Scotland and Spain then eastwards through France, Germany, Austria, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and western and central Russia.
Portrait of a Capercaillie
Generally resident in old pine forests or plantations, the capercaillie feeds from the treetops during the winter, foraging on the ground for the rest of the year commonly in open areas of marshland. During the Spring season males will display in front of gathering females in a ‘lek’ where they strut about calling and fanning their large tails. Although smaller but similar in appearance to the black-billed capercaillie they generally only share areas of occupation within eastern and central Siberia. In any event, the western capercaillie is easy to identify due to its size, plumage and call, each one of which is sufficient on its own.
Capercaillie in flight, coming in to land
Females choose a partner following a successful display or lek by a male. Leks are held in woodland glades or clearings where generally a small number of around six to a dozen male birds will perform and display from dawn onwards in order to attract a mate. Gatherings of over seventy cock birds, all displaying, are not unknown. Males may choose more than one mate and nests are usually hollows in the ground in dense cover constructed by the female. Between April to June, one clutch averaging 5 – 9 pale yellow eggs with rufous spots, is produced annually with one egg being laid every other day. Incubation commences prior to all eggs being laid and is undertaken by the female alone. The incubation period for each egg is up to twenty nine days. The young fledge at three weeks.
Capercaillie nest with eggs
The average lifespan for a western capercaillie is up to ten years whilst those held in captivity may survive for substantially longer.