Grouse in winter

How red grouse change their habits in cold weather.

I took a walk on the Moor in the snow this week. I don't think I ever saw so many red grouse up there.

It used to be thought that the red grouse was Britain's only endemic bird species: the only one found here and nowhere else. According to the latest taxonomic thinking, however, the red grouse is merely a sub-species of the willow grouse, which is found in Scandinavia and other places surrounding the Arctic Circle.

Bollocks to that. Unlike the willow grouse, the red grouse doesn't turn white in winter. I reckon that's good enough grounds for counting it as a separate species.

The fact that the red grouse doesn't turn white in winter helps explain how I managed to see so many of them this week. Rather than being, as is usually the case, nicely camouflaged amongst the reddish-brown heather, they stuck out like sore thumbs against the snow.

In previous winters, I've noticed how grouse habits change in very cold weather. They seem to congregate in greater numbers. I saw one low-flying flock of over 20 birds this week. In addition, they take flight later than they normally would as I approach, and don't kick up nearly as much of a commotion when they finally do take off. I'm guessing both these of these changes help preserve energy in the cold weather.

Red grouse

One thing I've never seen before, however, is red grouse perched on fence posts. I saw three of them doing so this week. Again, I'm guessing this was to preserve energy by keeping out of the snow.

Red grouse

Red grouse

Staying warmer at the expense of becoming more conspicuous: one of the millions of risky trade-offs animals have to make every day.

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks

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