A bit of a grouse

If my camera were a shotgun, I could have eaten grouse for dinner yesterday evening:

Red Grouse
Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus)

I've been trying to bag a decent shot of a red grouse for yonks. They're so elusive, you see. Can't say I blame them, what with the landed gentry having made so-called sport from blasting them out of the sky for the last couple of hundred years. Charles Darwin shot more than his fair share of game birds in his youth—mostly pheasants and partidges in his case—but he eventually grew out of it.

This time, I was prepared. I knew there was a grouse hiding, perfectly camouflaged in the heather ahead of me, as I had heard its distinctive go-back! go-back! call. So I had my camera held at eye-level, zoom set to maximum and already focused to about 20 yards, lens cap off, multi-shot mode and servo autofocus engaged, shutter speed set to 1/500th of a second, and finger on shutter. Even so, I was lucky to get this shot: the others were all very blurred.

The red grouse was once reckoned to be the UK's only endemic bird species. This turned out to be false on two counts: (1) the Scottish crossbill is now recognised as an endemic species, and (2) the poor old red grouse is now regarded as a mere variety of the willow grouse, which is common throughout northern tundra regions in Europe and America (where it is known as the willow ptarmigan).

Nuts to that! When it comes to grouse, count me in with the splitters. Unlike all the other 'varieties' of willow grouse, the red grouse's plumage does not turn white in winter. Forget about reproductive isolation and genetic variation and all that bumf; I reckon not turning white in winter should be enough to earn the red grouse a unique (and endemic) species label.

That was certainly what the majority of people seemed to think in Darwin's Day. As the great man wrote in chapter 2 of 'On the Origin of Species':

Several most experienced ornithologists consider our British red grouse as only a strongly-marked race of a Norwegian species, whereas the greater number rank it as an undoubted species peculiar to Great Britain.

Yeah! That's more like it! Willow grouse my peach-like arse! Bully for the famous red grouse!

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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