Quick facts

Common names: capercaillie

Scientific name: Tetrao urogallus

Family: Phasianidae (pheasants and grouse)

Habitat: woodland

Diet: shoors, buds, stems and berries

Predators: lynx (historically), although pine martens and foxes are known to take eggs and chicks

Origin: native

What do capercaillie look like?

The capercaillie is a huge bird. Males are around double the size of females, weighing in at just over 4kg compared with the females’ 2kg. Males are covered in glossy black feathers with red eye markings and a green tinge on their chests, while females are brown and mottled, with an orange-brown throat.

Not to be confused with:  black grouse. Female capercaillie are very similar in appearance to female black grouse, however the black grouse lacks the brown-orange throat of the capercaillie.

What do capercaillie eat?

This bird feeds predominantly on the buds, shoots and berries of pines, bilberry and grasses.

Capercaillie chick in grass

Credit: Arci Images GMBH / Alamy Stock Photo

How do capercaillie breed?

During the breeding season, which takes place in spring, male capercaillies ‘lek’ to attract a mate. Males fan their tails, puff their chests out and make strange whistling and clicking sounds in a bid to entice a female. The females watch from a perch before flying down to their chosen mate.

Following a successful mating, a nest is built on the ground using leaves, twigs, grass and feathers, in which around 5-11 eggs are laid. Chicks usually hatch towards the end of May. Their mother feeds her chicks on a diet of invertebrates and they are typically independent by September.

Where do capercaillie live?

Capercaillie are restricted to the native pinewoods of northern Scotland.

Signs and spotting tips

These huge birds spend most of their time on the ground, although they can sometimes be found in trees. They’re incredibly rare and so chances of spotting them are slim, but during the breeding season listen out for the distinctive gulping, whistling and clicking sounds the males make. If you do hear them, please stay a good distance away so as not to disturb them.

Did you know?

The Gaelic name for the bird is capall-coille, meaning ‘horse of the forest’.

Threats and conservation

The capercaillie was once extinct in the UK, before being reintroduced during the 19th century using birds from Sweden. However, since then the species has been in rapid decline, due to a variety of factors including habitat loss and fragmentation, birds flying into deer fencing, and climate change. It is now at risk of extinction and so is protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

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