They Will Always Be Blues
The Upland Almanac|Autumn 2020
They Will Always Be Blues
Dr. Ron Salomone from Ohio and a pair of grouse dogs soak in the view along a Colorado ridge top. (Photo/Michael Salomone)
Michael Salomone

Autumn brings the scent of wet dogs, Hoppe’s gun oil and fallen leaves. It’s time for a change. Evidence can be found in the golden leaves of the aspens and the muted reds, purples and oranges of the scrub oaks here in the Colorado Rockies. While marveling at the natural beauty of a changing season, though, hunters need also be aware of fairly recent changes in grouse species designations, seasonal grouse habitat variations and the hunting strategies and equipment that can improve grouse hunting success.

One change North American bird hunters have had to accept occurred in 2006 when the American Ornithologists Union (AOS), the ruling body for all things bird, presented genetic testing to support dividing an extremely popular game bird, the blue grouse, into two different species Here is where diehard bird hunters may recoil. For many of us, grouse will always be blues.

Large, gray-blue grouse found throughout the Rocky Mountains that have previously been referred to as blue grouse have now become dusky grouse, according to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife small game hunting brochure. This is a drastic change for locals who grew up in the mountains and for devoted bird hunters who travel to hunt here. And the blue grouse found throughout the Pacific Northwest have been reclassified as the sooty grouse.

For close to a century, hunters throughout the western half of the United States have pursued the regal blue grouse. However, when the AOS divided the popular game bird into two separate species, birders and bird hunters had to abruptly make a change and scramble to adjust life lists and harvested species. The result of one swift decision: Devoted grouse hunters picked up two new game birds to pursue while one prized species was “extinguished” without a massive die-off.

In spite of these changes, the usual grouse hunting strategies persist. As opening day approaches, the number of voicemails increases: You have to earn an opening day invite because coverts continue to be cherished and secret. And the gravel roads, rutted and dusty, offer up a road bird only occasionally. Parking spots are chosen carefully — some familiar and established, but others disguised to both hunter and hound. Yet, from year to year, the dogs still remember where we are and which way to go. Blues leave trace signs of their presence: broad-banded tail feathers full of scent and fat worms of scat, old and powdered from weather and age. Our bird dogs gobble up fresh grouse scat like wayward pieces of bacon that slip off a breakfast plate.

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Autumn 2020