Few hunters heard the call of the world’s biggest grouse – capercaillie. But for those who did it will never lose its attraction.
Not every hunter finds it easy to hear the call at all, and it’s not just because capercaillies exist only in a few remote corners of Europe and Asia. The song of a capercaillie (also spelt capercailzie) is quiet and blends well in the natural sounds of the spring woods. It comes in two parts. The first sounds like raindrops falling into a pool of water, or someone’s tapping a nail on a matchbox. The second part as if someone’s sliding the matchbox open and close, open and close. During this second part of the song – which lasts only for a couple of seconds – the bird can’t hear anything. That’s why capercaillie’s Russian name translates as “the deaf one”, or “the deaf grouse”.
It’s strange that a song that quiet is made by a bird that big. Capercaillie is the world’s biggest grouse, and one of the biggest game birds. A full-grown cock, old enough to sing at the lek, would weigh at least 8 1/2 pounds (3.9 kg); the record is 6.1 kg (13 1/3 lb), and 10 lb (4.5 kg) is about the average. Amazing how a bird can get that big on a diet of pine needles! All right, in the summer capercaillies feed on more calorie-rich food such as berries and insects, but they somehow manage to survive the long winter on little else but pine needles.
But when winter gives way to spring, and the snow is about half gone, the birds forget about pines – it’s time for the mating ritual. The song is actually a part of the ritual. The birds congregate at special places in the forest, called “leks”. About an hour before sunrise the males, perched on trees, begin to sing. They do it to attract females, who walk come and walk behind the trees, waiting for the males to come down to them. When the sun rises, the males fly down to the ground to mate. Often, though, they first have to fight a competing male over the hen in question. But this is the part of the lek that hunters seldom get to see – the hunt takes place at dawn, when the cocks are on trees and singing.
Capercaillie stalking to the song at the lek is one of the most unusual and difficult experience a hunter may have. It takes a sensitive and trained ear to hear the song, and blessed are those who can, because this is what makes the stalk so unusual. Usually, when you stalk a creature, you get to see the object of you stalk. Here you go by your sense of hearing. You’ve got to make out the couple of split seconds of the second part of the song, when the bird can’t hear you, and time your motion to these short intervals.
This may sound easy, but it really isn’t. There’s a firm belief in many parts of Russia that you never get to kill the first capercaillie you ever stalk at the lek. Don’t forget the bird is deaf only for a couple of seconds at a time; otherwise, it can hear very well and, knowing its vulnerability, is extremely wary. The capercaillie cock can see damned well, too – that’s why the hunter begins the stalk in the dark.
And the going is tough – a capercaillie lek is usually located in the wildest of the woods, often growing on a marsh, with piles of not yet melted snow, bogs, pools of water, fallen trees, in short, every obstacle you can find in a forest in spring and then some. Often the end of the song catches the hunter in an impossible position – like standing on one leg, or in a pool of ice-cold water just over the boots and quietly sipping in. And until the grouse starts to sing again, you’ve got to freeze still and not make a sound, no matter what. Do we have to tell you that it’s precisely in the most impossible moment that the bird decides to take a break?
You’re entitled to huge boasting rights if you can hear the song as soon as the guide does, but chances are he’ll literally have to take you there by the hand. For the first portion of the stalk, at least, you’ll have to trust your guide and mimic all his movements – leap forward as he leaps, freeze still and soundless when he does. Once the song is heard, your only communication will be by touch. There’s nothing to be ashamed of here; the bird is wary, and the song is hard to hear. Even the most famous capercaillie hunters of Eastern Europe got their first birds this way.
Shooting doesn’t seem to be the most difficult part of this hunt, but adrenaline and excitement take their toll. It’s not easy to make out the bird among the branches in the treacherous morning light. Even the most experienced hunters often walk right under the bird and realize this only after they hear the song behind their backs. Others get to at a crow’s nest or a similar harmless object in the treetops, while the cock sings its head off elsewhere.
What Gun and Load for Capercaillie?
Many European hunters believe that the way to shoot capercaillie is with a small caliber rifle, but in Russia a shotgun is not only the law (many regions ban bird hunting with rifles) but also the tradition. A close stalk to 25-30 meters necessary for a sure shot with a scattergun makes the hunt much more sporting and much more emotional. In addition, the bird is often surrounded by tree branches, which are more likely to deflect a single bullet than a number of pellets.
A capercaillie is a tough bird and requires a dense pattern of large shot – simply speaking, what you’d shoot a goose with. Most Russians use #2 to AA lead shot, which is legal in Russia for all hunting, so you don’t have to think non-tox – but a denser-than-lead tungsten composition ought to work even better. As for the gun, you’ll have to walk a lot and fire just one or two shots, so weight is more important than recoil absorption. That old classic from lead-shot days that carries like a feather and patterns tight and tighter would be the perfect choice.
Black grouse is often, but not always, found in the same habitat as capercaillie, and black grouse hunting is a common side-runner to the pursuit of the king of gamebirds. A black grouse lek is something else again. If you’re from the US, think sage grouse lek – they’re very similar. Black grouse tend to be more numerous than capercaillies, and their mating ritual is less about the song and more about the fight. Most Russian writers describe it as a big medieval tournament, with numerous knights challenging each other in the name of their belles. It makes an exciting sight from a distance, and tenfold more emotional when you’re in a blind located in the thick of the action.
You can stalk a black grouse, and in some instances – when the lek is not concentrated, and the birds are scattered over vast areas – it would be your only choice. Fighting cocks are relatively easy to approach – move as they begin to fight, stop as they break the fight and rest – it’s the hens who are on the alert and usually start trouble. But the tradition calls for hunting black grouse on the lek from a blind, and in many parts of the country the hunting regulations forbid any other method.
You take the place in the blind well in the dark, and don’t get to shoot until broad daylight. But you’ll never get bored – being in the middle of the awakening of the spring will give you countless chances to observe the intimate moments of nature. If there are any white grouse in the neighborhood, prepare for an adrenaline rush, as the cock lets out its mating cry that sounds like a madman’s laughter. This is spooky even for those who’d heard it often – but that’s the signal that the time is near. Soon the knights in shiny armor of black feather will announce their arrival at the tournament.
Do not shoot the first bird that shows up at the lek. Other cocks will take the hint and fail to show up at the lek this morning. This can even destroy the lek. If there are any competing leks in the neighborhood, the birds may abandon the obviously dangerous territory and move over to other platforms. Wait until a few more cocks come over, and the fighting starts. Once the cocks get excited, gunshots have little effect on them. You’re quite likely to forget about your gun for a moment, too, as you cheer for the fighters, and laugh quietly when one of them turns and flees, flashing the white feathers of his behind. Was that where the expression “show white feather” came from?
When you do get to shoot, don’t forget that a black cock is a tough bird, and telling distances from the blind is tricky. Beginners tend to underestimate the range and shoot too far. A good guide, when building a blind, will put up a few conspicuous marks some 35 meters from the blind, to help with range estimation. For black grouse, you can use the same gun as for capercaillie, with shots two sizes smaller – what you’d shoot a tough winter duck with in the days of lead.
Where and When to Hunt Capercaillie and Black Grouse
There are few countries in the world where capercaillies are numerous enough to be hunted. European Union is generally against spring hunting for birds, so in countries like Sweden capercaillie season is open only in the fall. Hunting in spring is open in Austria, but up there you’ve got to be a big landowner or connected to a big landowner to experience it. In Bulgaria and especially Belarus spring hunting for capercaillie is more affordable, but the country that is the Mecca for hunting capercaillie and black grouse in spring are Russia. That’s the only place where you can hunt blackcock in spring, too. In Russia these hunts are an ancient tradition that in the days of old was shared by the lowest of peasants (who used the opportunity to fill the larder before the plowing time) and the highest of the nobility (the Romanoffs had extensive shooting preserves where thousands of capercaillies gathered on carefully guarded leks).
Today black grouse and capercaillie hunting is thoroughly regulated to make sure the spring season doesn’t damage their populations. To begin with, both birds are polygamous, and one cock can mate with a number of hens. Therefore, a limited killing of a small number of male birds will not hurt reproduction success and bird numbers. The season is short, running from 10 days to two weeks depending on the region, and birds are harvested by individual tags (and not a general limit). The tags are issued according to bird counts, and the hunting preserves must prove they have an adequate number of capercaillie and black grouse to qualify for each tag.
In fact, spring seasons on capercallie and black grouse are actually beneficial to bird populations. One of the biggest threats for these birds is habitat loss. If the lek is destroyed (e.g. by logging), the birds may not find an alternative reproduction option, and may miss the mating season. Illegal hunting for meat is another danger, as a skilled poacher can harvest up to ten capercaillie cocks in a morning. If hunting preserves can make money on those who hunt capercaillie for sport, they use the money to protect the leks from loggers and poachers. If they don’t, the leks become neglected, and the birds’ populations suffer.
The spring season usually runs from late April to early May, depending on the region. The hunt is not inexpensive, but still relatively affordable – a capercaillie and black grouse combo hunt will cost you, all said and done, under a thousand bucks (travel exclusive). Calculated per second of adventure, few offers on BookYourHunt.com match this.
And did you know that not only humans are aware of the capercaillie’s Achilles’ foot? Brown bears also take advantage of the birds’ temporary loss of hearing, and stalk the birds as they come to the ground. Bear encounters are not rare at all during capercaillie lek hunts. Speaking of which, the spring season for brown bears and the spring bird season in Russia usually overlap – just sayin’…