Autumnal Diets

Cowberries in the crop of a bird from Morayshire

Cowberries in the crop of a bird from Morayshire

Plucking and drawing the grouse from Morayshire on Tuesday, I was interested to see what their crops contained. When I opened up the crop of a grouse shot in August, I found nothing but rush seeds, demonstrating the extremely variable diet of a bird that we tend to think will only eat heather. On opening the grouse’s crop from Morayshire, I found blaeberry shoots, some heather shoots and half a dozen shiny red cowberries. Cowberry (also known as lingonberry – V. vitis-idea) is one of those plants like crowberry, cranberry, blaeberry, cloudberry and bearberry which varies in its availability from moor to moor.

There is usually a reasonable percentage of berry shrub on every piece of moorland, but the composite percentages are normally quite unique. I noticed that there was a huge abundance of cowberry and blaeberry on the moor at Morayshire, and it is probably no surprise that this is reflected in the crop contents. Still, it is interesting to note the range of different plant species besides heather which make up the grouse’s menu through the year.

Just out of interest, I was beating on a local pheasant shoot yesterday where some of the high bird drives run onto marginal moorland. Shortly before the first drive as the guns were moving into position, a pair of red grouse flew off the hill and onto the feed ride where stacks of straw and hoppers had been well used by the pheasants. Frustratingly, they were out of sight when they landed, but they stayed for a few minutes before turning back and flying precisely the same route back onto the hill again, presumably because they had seen dogs, beaters and guns in the vicinity.

I wondered what on earth these two birds could want from a pheasant drive, but I suppose it is very possible that they are taking from the feed hoppers. Nowadays this is very rare, but it is not unheard of. Red grouse traditionally visited arable stubbles in the autumn to supplement their diet with grain, so it could well be that this pair has somehow learned that there is feed in that ride and are just taking advantage of the situation. After the cold spring we had in March, it might be that the snow pushed them down to these hoppers and they learned the trick when the heather was under several feet of snow.

It’s the kind of behaviour that you’d be far more likely to see in blackgame, but while you don’t often hear of a “corn fed” red grouse, that’s not to say it couldn’t happen…

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