Bavaria: On the trail of the capercaillie – Bavaria

Capercaillie are among the rarest domestic animals, even hunters and foresters hardly ever see the mighty chicken birds. You are most likely to have a chance during the mating season between March and May. Because then the capercaillie are so high on hormones that they forget everything around them and even lose their shyness of people. In the Tölzer mountains above the Lenggrieser Hütte, for example, two years ago a grouse, which the hut landlady soon named Franz-Josef, regularly attacked hikers who accidentally got too close to him.

“But outside of the mating season, it’s extremely lucky if you see a wood grouse or a hen flying up,” says Martin Lauterbach. He must know. The forest engineer and ornithologist is responsible for the Bavaria-wide capercaillie monitoring of the State Institute for Forestry and Forestry (LWF) in Munich-Freising.

The goal of Lauterbach and his team is to preserve the tiny capercaillie population in Bavaria. In Bavaria there should be at most 600 to 900 breeding pairs. Is on the Red List Tetrao urogallus, as the species is scientifically named, has long been classified as critically endangered. The EU states and thus also the Free State committed years ago to the preservation of the capercaillie population – above all by placing their habitats under special protection. The monitoring, which only started last autumn, should provide the basis for this. Within his framework, Lauterbach and his colleagues, together with hunters, nature park rangers, ornithologists and other helpers, searched more than 2,600 areas in potential capercaillie habitats in the Bavarian mountains, in the Bavarian Forest and in the Fichtelgebirge for feathers, droppings or other evidence.

The population in the Fichtelgebirge is disappearing

LWF recently presented the first monitoring results. The good news: in the Upper Bavarian and Allgäu mountains, but also in the Bavarian Forest, many capercaillie territories are evidently occupied. But there is also bad news: In the Fichtelgebirge, there were only two accidental detections during the monitoring. “The small population there is apparently disappearing,” says Lauterbach, “despite all efforts to protect them in recent years.” Lauterbach cannot provide more precise information, for example on the number of capercaillie in Bavaria or even in the respective regions. Many bird lovers had just hoped for it. Because the 600 to 900 breeding pairs mentioned so far are based on counts at courtship sites and are “at best the quality of estimates,” as Lauterbach himself admits. Nevertheless, quantitative recordings are only planned for later dates. The monitoring is repeated every three years.

With their feathered legs, wood grouse belong to the grouse family. They are also the largest domestic gallinaceous birds. And males and females are very different from each other. The roosters, which can grow up to a meter tall and weigh five kilos, are about a third larger than the hens. From afar, the roosters look almost black. Up close, however, they are surprisingly multicolored. The dark plumage on the tail and on the underside of the abdomen has white sprinkles. The wings stand out against the body in dark brown and the breast is a greenish-blue iridescence. The most striking are the so-called roses. These are the two bright red areas of skin above the eyes, which swell significantly during courtship. The hens have inconspicuous brown stripes and are therefore excellently camouflaged.

The capercaillie expert Martin Lauterbach

(Photo: Florian Stahl/LWF)

Overall, capercaillies appear rather clumsy. When they take off from the ground or out of a conifer, a loud rumbling sound is heard. The highlight of the capercaillie year is courtship. For this purpose, the roosters visit the courtship areas from March. It’s the same every year. Early in the morning they start their courtship song from their sleeping trees. It always expires the same. The “Knappen” is followed by the trill, then the main beat and finally the “Whet”. The latter is reminiscent of sharpening a scythe. Later the roosters change to the ground and defend a tree stump or another small place against the other roosters. The hens come to the display grounds in early May. They later take care of the brood and the rearing of the young on their own.

Capercaillie live in pristine, sparse mixed forests with a high proportion of spruce, fir or pine trees, which in Bavaria only occurs in the mountains and in the higher elevations of the Bavarian Forest and the Fichtelgebirge. In winter they feed almost exclusively on fir, spruce and pine needles. As soon as the trees sprout in spring, they eat the shoots and buds of beech and larch. During the summer they feed on all sorts of berry leaves, herbs, flowers, shoots and grasses. “The blueberry is the favorite food of the capercaillie,” says Lauterbach. “In the fall they devour vast amounts of it.” The young, on the other hand, mainly eat ants and other insects in the first few weeks of life.

Capercaillie are losers from climate change

Capercaillies react very sensitively to disturbances, for example from hikers or mountain bikers and in winter from skiers. Once they are scared, it is quite possible that they will strictly avoid the job in the future. They tend to withdraw from areas with high leisure pressure. At the same time, they are seen as the losers of climate change. The reason: With the rising average temperatures, the beech trees are also thriving better and better in the mountain forests, and the proportion of spruce, fir and pine trees in them is tending to decrease. In addition, the capercaillie only feel comfortable in sparse forests. Mixed beech forests are quickly too dense for them. “If we want to do something for the capercaillie, we have to ensure that the young beeches don’t get out of hand in suitable habitats,” says Lauterbach.

The question remains as to what became of the grouse Franz-Josef, who attacked many a hiker above the Lenggrieser Hütte two years ago. Foresters, conservationists and the hut landlady caught it in a complex operation and released it again a little further away in a secluded piece of mountain forest. Otherwise not only would the horror for the hikers have become too great, but – precisely because of the popularity of the Lenggrieser Hütte – above all the stress for the wood grouse. Franz-Josef is said to have immediately felt at home in his new home. At least that’s what eyewitnesses to the resettlement reported at the time. And nothing has been heard from him since.

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