Having been up and down the country looking at black grouse over the past two years, I’ve seen a huge number of birds. Thanks to the fact that I’ve got a camera with a long zoom lens, I’ve been able to take dozens of photographs which have helped me with sketches and paintings, but they have also allowed me to compare and contrast birds from different areas.
While blackcock appear to have a fairly constant appearance across the nation, there seems to be some room for variety amongst greyhens. It’s hard to see a clear correlation as to which colour variations occur where, but I have noticed that greyhens in Galloway are much redder than any others that I have seen elsewhere. The greyhens on the Chayne are almost foxy red with strong black barring around their necks and few black feathers on their shoulders, while birds from northern England seem to be more of a creamy apricot colour with a great deal of black marks around the shoulder. There is plenty of variation between old and young greyhens from the same area, and it seems that no matter where you are from, the older the greyhen you’re dealing with, the better defined its markings will be.
A greyhen’s camouflage is really amazing, and it’s no wonder that attempts to survey black grouse numbers always gravely underestimate greyhen numbers. Surveys are generally carried out at leks sites where the eye is naturally drawn to the garish blackcock, and the displaying males get so pumped with testosterone that they don’t care who sees them. By comparison, a single greyhen lurking in thick cover near a lek is almost totally invisible, and despite the fact that she is obviously just as important to the reproductive processes as the cock birds, she is often overlooked.
From what I have seen, it does seem that greyhens are somewhat more vulnerable to predators than blackcock, and birds of prey in particular will pass over a group of blackcock without batting an eyelid before striking suddenly at a single greyhen. They need their camouflage, and although they don’t have the bombastic charm of their mates, it gives them a unique and mysterious appeal.