Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
PHEASANT-TAILED GROUSE.--COCK OF THE PLAINS.
TETRAO UROPHASIANUS, Bonap.
PLATE CCXCVII.--MALE AND FEMALE.
Although the Cock of the Plains has long been known to exist within the
limits of the United States, the rugged and desolate nature of the regions
inhabited by it has hitherto limited our knowledge of its habits to the cursory
observations made by the few intrepid travellers who, urged by their zeal in the
cause of science, have ventured to explore the great ridge of mountains that
separate our western prairies from the rich valleys bordering on the Pacific
Ocean. Two of these travellers, my friends Mr. TOWNSEND and Mr. NUTTALL, have
favoured me with the following particulars respecting this very remarkable
species, the history of which, not being myself personally acquainted with it, I
shall endeavour to complete by adding some notes of Mr. DOUGLAS.
"Tetrao Urophasianus, Pi-imsh of the Wallah Wallah Indians, Mak-esh-too-yoo
of the Nezpercee Indians, is first met with about fifty miles west of the Black
Hills. We lose sight of it in pursuing the route by the Snake river until we
reach Wallah Wallah, on the banks of the Columbia, near the mouth of Lewis
river. This bird is only found on the plains which produce the worm-wood
(Artemisia), on which plant it feeds, in consequence of which the flesh is so
bitter that it is rejected as food. It is very unsuspicious, and easily
approached, rarely flies unless hard pressed, runs before you at the distance of
a few feet, clucking like the common hen, often runs under the horses of
travellers when disturbed, rises very clumsily, but when once started, flies
with rapidity to a great distance, and has the sailing motion of the Pinnated
Grouse. In the autumn they frequent the branches of the Columbia river, where
they feed on a narrow-leaved plant. At this time they are considered good food
by the natives, who take great quantities of them in nets. J. K. TOWNSEND."
"On the north branch of the Platte (Larimie's Fork) we begin to meet with
the Tetrao Urophasianus in considerable numbers, always on the ground in small
flocks or pairs, by no means shy, but when too nearly approached arising with a
strong whirring noise, and uttering at the same time a rather loud but very
short alarmed guttural cackle. The notes of the female indeed, at such times,
almost resemble those of a common hen. The old male, when killed by Mr.
TOWNSEND, turned out so different from the imperfect and unadult specimens
figured, that we could scarcely recognise it for the same species. Its size
seemed to promise a fine meal, but appearances are often deceitful, and after
being nicely broiled, it truly deserved to be treated like the well prepared
plate of cucumbers, proving so very bitter, though delicately white, that our
hungry hunters could scarcely swallow more than a morsel. In short, it feeds by
choice on the bitterest shrubs of these sterile plains, and under-wood (several
species of Artemisia) is literally its favourite food. Of its nest and breeding
habits we ascertained nothing, but cannot for a moment hesitate to say that some
mistake must exist in either asserting or supposing that a bird so constantly
confined to the open desert plains, could retire to the shady forests and dark
alluvial thickets of the Columbia to rear its young apart from their usual food
and habits. We met with this very fine Grouse near to the plains around Wallah
Wallah, on the south side of the Columbia, but never saw it either in the
forests of the Columbia or the Wahlamet, nor, so far as we know, has it ever
been found on the coast of California, or in the interior of Mexico. T.
Mr. DOUGLAS'S statement is as follows:--"The flight of these birds is slow,
unsteady, and affords but little amusement to the sportsman. From the
disproportionately small, convex, thin-quilled wing,--so thin that a vacant
space half as broad as a quill appears between each,--the flight may be said to
be a sort of fluttering, more than any thing else: the bird giving two or three
claps of the wings in quick succession, at the same time hurriedly rising; then
shooting or floating, swinging from side to side, gradually falling, and thus
producing a clapping, whirring sound. When started, the voice is cuck, cuck,
cuck, like the Common Pheasant. They pair in March and April. Small eminences
on the banks of streams are the places usually selected for celebrating the
weddings, the time generally about sunrise. The wings of the male are lowered,
buzzing on the ground; the tail, spread like a fan, somewhat erect; the bare
yellow oesophagus inflated to a prodigious size,--fully half as large as his
body, and, from its soft, membranous substance, being well contrasted with the
scale-like feathers below it on the breast, and the flexile, silky feathers on
the neck, which on these occasions stand erect. In this grotesque form he
displays, in the presence of his intended mate, a variety of attitudes. His
love-song is a confused, grating, but not offensively disagreeable
tone,--something that we can imitate, but have a difficulty in
expressing--Hurr-hurr-hurr-r-r-r-hoo, ending in a deep, hollow tone, not unlike
the sound produced by blowing into a large reed. Nest on the ground, under the
shade of Purshia and Artemisia, or near streams, among Phalaris arundinacea,
carefully constructed of dry grass and slender twigs. Eggs, from thirteen to
seventeen, about the size of those of a common fowl, of a wood-brown colour,
with irregular chocolate blotches on the thick end. Period of incubation
twenty-one to twenty-two days. The young leave the nest a few hours after they
are hatched. In the summer and autumn months these birds are seen in small
troops, and in winter and spring in flocks of several hundreds. Plentiful
throughout the barren, and plains of the river Columbia; also in the interior of
North California. They do not exist on the banks of the river Missouri; nor
have they been seen in any place east of the Rocky Mountains."
TETRAO UROPHASIANUS, Bonap. Amer. Orn., vol. iii. pl. 21.
TETRAO (CENTROCERCUS) UROPHASIANUS, Cock of the Plains, Swains. & Rich.
F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii. p. 358.
COCK OF THE PLAINS, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 666.
COCK OF THE PLAINS, Tetrao urophasianellus, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iv.p. 503.
Male, 30, 36. Female, 22.
Rocky Mountains and Columbia river, northward. Once seen on the Missouri.
Abundant. Partially migratory from high to low grounds in autumn and winter.
Bill shortish, strong, somewhat compressed; upper mandible with the dorsal
line arcuato-declinate, the ridge flattened at the base and narrowed on account
of the great extent of the nasal sinus, which is feathered, the sides convex
toward the end, the edges inflected, the tip narrow and rounded; lower mandible
with the angle of moderate length and width, the dorsal line ascending and
convex, the edges sharp and inflected, the tip obtuse, but like the upper
thin-edged. Head rather small, oblong; neck of moderate length; body full.
Feet rather short, stout; tarsus roundish, feathered, bare and reticulated
behind. Toes of moderate size, covered above with numerous scutella, laterally
pectinated with slender projecting flattened scales; first toe small, second a
little shorter than fourth, third much longer. Claws stout, slightly arched,
moderately compressed, obtuse.
Plumage dense, soft, rather compact, the feathers in general broadly ovate;
those on the head very short, on the sides of the neck anteriorly at its lower
part and across the fore part of the breast, small, very short, broad, stiff,
and imbricated like scales; higher up on the sides of the neck a tuft of
feathers having their shafts elongated, bristle-like, and terminated by a few
filaments. On each side of the lower part of the neck in front is a large bare
space capable of being inflated into a hemispherical sac. On the fore part of
the breast the feathers, although long, have the shaft thickened and elongated;
the rest of the feathers are of ordinary structure. Wings rather short,
concave, much rounded, the primaries stiff and very narrow, so as to leave a
large interval when the wing is extended; the third, fourth, and fifth quills
longest. Tail long, graduated, of twenty stiffish feathers, each tapering to a
very elongated point.
Bill black; iris light hazel; superciliary membrane vermilion; toes
brownish-grey; claws brownish-black. The upper parts are light yellowish-brown,
variegated with brownish-black and yellowish-white; the feathers of the head and
neck transversely barred, of the back barred, undulated and dotted, with a
whitish longitudinal line along the shafts of the wing-feathers. The quills
chocolate-brown, their outer webs and part of their inner margins mottled with
yellowish-white. Tail with about ten bands of yellowish-white on the outer
webs, which are otherwise variegated like the back, the inner webs nearly plain
brown. The throat and fore part of neck whitish, longitudinally spotted with
brownish-black; a narrow white band across the throat; the sides of the neck and
fore part of the breast white; the elongated shafts of the tuft-feathers black;
the sides variegated like the back, with a broad line of white along the middle
of each feather; the axillars and lower wing-coverts pure white; the hind part
of the breast and the abdomen brownish-black; the sides of the rump like the
back; the lower tail-coverts brownish-black, largely tipped with white; the
feathers of the tibiae and tarsi pale brownish-grey, faintly barred with brown.
Length to end of tail 30 inches; extent of wings 36; wing from flexure 13;
tail 12, shortest feathers 7; bill along the ridge 1 6/12, along the edge of
lower mandible 1 4/12; tarsus 2 1/2; hind toe 1/2, its claw 4/12; middle toe
2 1/4, its claw 6/12.
The female is much smaller than the male, and differs in being destitute of
the bare skin on the fore neck, in having the superciliary membranes smaller,
the plumage entirely of ordinary texture; the tail less elongated, with the
feathers less narrow and ending in a rounded point. All the upper parts, fore
neck and sides are variegated with brownish-black, yellowish-grey and whitish,
disposed nearly as in the male; the throat whitish, the fore part of the breast
white, the middle part brownish-black, the legs and tarsi as in the male, as are
the quills; the tail-feathers mottled like the back and tipped with white.
Length to end of tail 22 inches; wing from flexure 10 1/2; tail 7 3/4; bill
along the ridge 1 4/12; tarsus 1 (10 1/2)/12; middle toe 1 (8 1/2)/12, its claw
The size of this species has been exaggerated, it having been by some
compared to the Turkey, and by others to the Great Wood Grouse of Europe, Tetrao
Urogallus, whereas, in fact, it seems not much to exceed Tetrao hybridus. In
some individuals, as I am informed by Mr. TOWNSEND, the hair-like shafts of the
feathers on the sides of the neck are considerably longer than in my figure of