Happy families on the moors

The mating game for some of our best loved wild upland birds has started. Mark Holdstock reports.

On a still evening at twilight, red grouse cocks make their presence known across the heather moors.

Their calls are to warn off other males from their territory and entice passing hens to come and share their rather short lives – life expectancy is about 18 months, shooters and predators permitting.

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They are the game birds which kick-off the mating game.

The grouse shooting season finished on December 10 and as soon as they are left in peace, they start pairing up.

“They may get one season together, they may get two, but it’s unlikely that they would get more than that,” says Richard Coates, chairman of the Moorland Branch of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation.

He manages one of the most northerly grouse moors in Yorkshire and is an expert in wildlife behaviour.

“They will have one hen normally, but it’s not uncommon for them to have two. Generally, there are more cocks than hens; as a rule, they will just have one hen and he will fight off any other cock bird that comes into his territory – and any other hen if he doesn’t fancy her.”

Once paired up, the hen will lay her eggs around the first week in April and incubate them for the next 24 days. All that time, and beyond, the dutiful father will stick around.

“When the hens are sitting, the cocks are often quite prominent, watching what is going on,” says Richard.

“When they’ve hatched, you won’t be able to see the cock birds. They’ll get their heads down and not show themselves, to protect the young from predators.”

But this doesn’t mean that the father has abandoned his family. He may still play an occasional role in protecting the young against bad weather.

“The hen does most of the brooding, so you’ll get 10 chicks under one hen. There is a critical period, between two and three weeks old, when the chicks are too big to be brooded, but they haven’t got the feathers to protect them from the weather. There have been rare instances of keepers who’ve seen cocks brooding.”

Wild grey partridge make good parents.

“It’s not uncommon to see them with up to 15 or 16 young. They will stay in the coveys right up to September when they get shot. And if you didn’t shoot them, they’d still be in that group right up till dispersal time and nesting time again.”

Black grouse ‘leks’ are courtship displays where up to 25 cocks parade around like young men at the disco.

“The hens will go to whoever they fancy the most. He could end up with half-a-dozen. He’ll do his business and the hens will go off and nest and rear the brood on their own.

“They probably suffer from that because the survival rate for young black grouse is quite poor. A red grouse could average seven or eight surviving chicks per brood. For the black grouse, it’s more an average of two to three.”

PHEASANTS WITH ONE TRACK MINDS

Pheasants are not interested in monogamy or childcare, and a cock may have a harem of half-a-dozen hens in the wild. He will service them and then clear off.

If there are too many cocks around, they can disrupt the nesting because they won’t leave a hen alone.

A cock without a territory will try to service a hen even if she’s sitting on a nest.

The hen is not a very good mother and she is at a disadvantage because there’s only one pair of eyes watching for predators who may be seeking attack her brood.