Grouse

A Winter Blackcock

Not so illustrious
Not so illustrious

Just found this old picture of my favourite blackcock (taken in Feb 2011) who got me started on this career and became the subject of my book. I thought if nothing else that it was noteworthy to see a black grouse away from the lek sites, with wattles invisibly folded away and tail held calmly down like a pheasant. Blackcock look like this for the majority of the year, although it is very hard to find photographs of birds that are not displaying. I have spoken to several people who assumed that blackcock always hold their tails up in the display position, it being the “default” posture.

It’s easy to see why this misconception is not uncommon amongst newcomers, since the only representations of blackcock in popular culture and media show the tail up at full fan, even though the unsuspecting observer is far more likely to bump unexpectedly into a blackcock in flight or feeding in a tree. A keeper friend in Perthshire told me that a walker had asked him why there were so many moorhens browsing on the inbye pasture below the moor, and he had to explain (in the face of some resistance) that they were blackcock. The walker maintained that they could not possibly have been blackcock, since there was no “dove-like cooing sound” or flashy white vertical tails. The two parted company in the certain knowledge that the other was an idiot. Incidentally, I have tried to describe the sound of a displaying blackcock in a dozen different ways and still have not succeeded, but I have never felt that “dove-like” was a useful description in any way.

For me, the lek is unquestionably the finest and most exciting natural spectacle in the country, but where black grouse really get interesting is during these cold wet days of winter, when birds rise noisily in a blur of black and white from dripping stands of fallen bracken, giggling girlishly as they pound away into the low cloud. No other bird has the evasive wit and cunning of an old blackcock in December, and compared to the showboating dolt of an April cock, the two demonstrate the strange schizophrenia that makes the species so fascinating to study, observe and work with.

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