Montana Outdoors

May 14, 2007

Blue Grouse and firewood

Filed under: Birds, Blue Grouse, Montana, Nature, Outdoors, Photography, Photos, Pictures, Wood cutting — montucky @ 8:23 pm

For those of us who heat our homes with wood-burning stoves, doing so is one of those enjoyable things that we pay for up-front. Now that we have enjoyed the warmth, security and beauty of our winter fires, the cold part of the year is over and it is time to begin getting ready for next winter by cutting and hauling our new wood supply. The Forest Service sells permits to cut wood in the National Forests for $5 a cord: I use 4 to 5 cords a winter, heating a 2,000+ square foot house. My heating bills are therefore minimal, but I pay for it up front with a lot of hard work.

On my trips into the back country the last two weeks, it was apparent that this is already a very dry year. The reports of an early and long fire season may well be correct, at least here in Western Montana. The woods are very dry: I would compare their state now to what one would usually see in late June or early July. Even in areas (like the one I was in today) where there are still banks of snow remaining, the clear ground is dry. A lightning storm would surely be able to easily start a wild fire. Therefore, wood cutting must be done earlier than usual, and I started today.

I spent most of the day at an elevation of 6,000 feet cutting lodge pole pine that was killed by a fire in 2002. It has been drying ever since, and now it’s just perfect. It seems such a shame that most of those dead trees won’t ever be used. We are in such high demand for energy today, and yet there are thousands of acres of prime firewood that will not be harvested, and at the same time, folks all over will pay high prices for heating fuel or electricity to heat their homes. In the area where I cut mine, I would estimate there is enough dead and dry lodge pole pine to heat 10,000 homes for a winter, and that is a conservative estimate: it could easily be two or three times that number. Sadly enough, the upcoming fire season will most certainly create more fire-killed trees to replace these.

One of the pleasures associated with cutting firewood is where it is done. My work today was next to the borders of three of our remaining roadless areas, the Reservation Divide area, South Siegel area and North Siegel area. I had to stop short of where I had intended to go by 4-foot snow drifts over the road, but that’s OK: I’m glad it’s still there!

Grouse hunting is one of my passions, and this is one of the areas I hunt each fall. They are fairly plentiful, fun to hunt, and the Blue Grouse lives in the most beautiful parts of the wild country; the pine, fir and spruce forests above 6,000 feet. Today I was fortunate to see a pair of them and be able to get within camera range.

Here’s a male Blue Grouse in his prom suit trying to attract a mate. It is a rare sight. One of the endearing traits of these guys is that they always (and I mean ALWAYS) keep a tree or brush between themselves and a hunter. After about 15 minutes of playing peek-a-boo with this guy, trying to get him out of the heavy cover without flushing him, I was able to get a few photos, and they show him fairly well, even though there is still that little bit of brush between him and the camera.

Blue Grouse Cock
Blue Grouse Cock

Blue Grouse Cock

Blue Grouse Cock

And here’s the object of his affection. (If you are not familiar with Blue Grouse, they are about the size of a medium sized chicken, and are absolutely delicious! Grouse “nuggets” are one of my favorite foods.)

Blue Grouse hen

Blue Grouse hen


  1. Oh wow! Those are fabulous shots! I ran into a blue grouse down by Katy Creek last fall but boy did I scare him when I tried to walk up on him. You must have the gracefulness of a deer! Really amazing shots!

    We wood heat our home as well – and it’s amazing the amount of work (that usually starts in spring) a person has to do to put up enough wood! Everyone I know when they visit they kind of act like we play twenty four seven….. and I understand how it must look that way but boy, when we work we work!


    Comment by aullori — May 14, 2007 @ 9:59 pm

  2. I know grouse pretty well, and can anticipate about what they’ll do. Acting like anything but one of their natural predators is a big key to it. I usually hunt them with a pistol, so I had to learn how to get fairly close.

    Yes, wood cutting is a lot of work, but it’s well worth it. When I mention that my heating costs are under $100 a year people usually don’t believe it, not in the cold country. In my opinion there’s no more comforting heat and I love the fact that when the electricity goes out because of a winter storm it really doesn’t matter.


    Comment by montucky — May 14, 2007 @ 10:22 pm

  3. For years I gathered, split and chopped wood to heat the various homes I lived in…I loved the rhythm of it; the connnection with the seasons–the breather in the summer when gardening took priority, the stacking in the fall like laying larder in a pantry. It’s quite a luxury to just set a thermostat and I never take it for granted.
    There was a huge burn area in the Jemez wilderness where we were able to cut standing dead ponderosa pines for vigas (beams) for our adobe home…it was a priviledge and a pleasure to stand among “the dead” and have them offer themselves for our use. The bark was easily removed and with the help of a draw knife, the beauty of the wood was exposed. That was a long time ago (35 years) and it seems like yesterday. I love your blog, it’s a breath of fresh air in my not so rural life (although I do have deer, groundhogs, pileated woodpeckers, rabbits and a skunk family inhabiting my urban acre!)


    Comment by myinneredge — May 16, 2007 @ 6:26 am

  4. Great grouse shots. It’s actually a pretty bird, isn’t it? The AK state bird is the spruce hen, also called the ptarmigan. I’m not a hunter, but I’ve been told that it’s probably one of the dumbest birds on the planet. Perhaps unrelated to the grouse?


    Comment by wolf — May 16, 2007 @ 8:20 am

  5. myinneredge,

    Yes, using wood for heat does provide a very real tie to the natural world. When we came back to Montana, our kids were just starting their teenage years, and it was a special thrill to take them through the experiences of gathering, splitting and stacking the firewood that would keep us warm during the winter. I remember my wife not wanting to watch when I taught my 12 year old son how to use a double-bitted axe.
    You are quite a distance from New Mexico now, but I know those times must still be great memories for you; experiences that not all that many people have had. It’s sad to see that the majority of people in today’s world have lost their basic ties to nature.
    Thanks for visiting!


    Comment by montucky — May 16, 2007 @ 8:24 am

  6. wolf,

    I had hoped to be able to capture the birds away from the brush, but I know better than to expect that. Yes, they are beautiful. We also have the Ruffed grouse here in the lower elevations and sharp-tails on the Eastern side of the divide. There are ptarmigan around but they’re not really plentiful, perhaps because, as you mentioned, they’re not the brightest of birds (the old timers used to call them “fool hens”).


    Comment by montucky — May 16, 2007 @ 8:58 am

  7. that absolutely amazes me…about the wood heating your home for less than 100 dollars. we don’t have cold winters, but our area of the country is definitely high energy consumers. I can only imagine walking out and chopping all that wood for next winter…amazing that there is enough of the fired wood to heat so many homes….

    nice picts of the birds, never seen them before


    Comment by skouba — May 16, 2007 @ 10:33 pm

  8. skouba,

    The area of that one fire was somewhere around 50 square miles. There are several fires in Montana every year of that size. Imagine the amount of energy that could be saved if some or most of that was used. I hate to mention this to you, but up here we don’t even have a need for air conditioning. I remember that was a major energy consumer (and money consumer) in Arizona.

    I don’t know if there are grouse in Texas or not. We have four species here, plus pheasants, and we usually have a half dozen in the freezer. The blues are my favorites, and they are plentiful here if you know where to find them. My wife could serve them to you prepared several different ways and you would probably think you were eating the best chicken you’ve ever tasted, but, like most wild game, they have none of the fat that domesticated animals have.


    Comment by montucky — May 16, 2007 @ 11:31 pm

  9. I live in Eastern WA & Hunting Blue Grouse occupies most of time during September. I’m responding to Wolf’s question. The Willow Ptarmigan is Alaska’s State bird, which is not in any way related to the Spruce grouse. Spruce grouse are a true forest grouse & do not turn white like Ptarmigan do in early fall to blend in with snowy Tundra. There are three different sub-species of Ptarmigan,the Rock,Willow,&White-tailed. The Rock Ptarmigan is the only Ptarmigan native in the Northwest. It is also the smallest& is only found at or above Tree line 10,000ft. or higher. As for the Spruce grouse it has a solid black tail fan with a Scarlet Red eye comb, the only other sub-species of the Spruce grouse is the Franklin grouse. Common in Washington, Idaho,&Montana @mid-elevation usually found in their namesake the Spruce tree. It is identified by it’s Black tail fan tipped with a Russet brown. I love all grouse, but if any of them deserve the nickname (Fool-Hen) it hands down would be the Spruce grouse. One more fact, the Blue Grouse comes in two sub-species, the bird’s which you photographed so beautifully, we’re of the sooty variety. One of the best Blue grouse pics i’ve seen. Going onto the post from Texas. Texas has no grouse,but they do have the best Quail population in the US. He was speaking of the Blue Quail,AKA Cotton Top, AKA Scaled Quail. What he says is true, they’re a great eating game bird. But the weight difference between a male Blue Grouse & a male Blue Quail is about 4 to 5 pounds.


    Comment by BlueGrouseBill — May 4, 2008 @ 7:31 am

  10. Bill, thanks for the visit and the great comment! Blue grouse is my all time favorite quarry also. Good luck on your hunts, my friend!


    Comment by montucky — May 4, 2008 @ 8:03 pm

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