When is a pheasant a grouse?
Noah Webster, in 1806, defined the word pheasant as "a genus of gallinaceous birds," and gallinaceous as a reference to "domestic fowls, or the gallinae"—the latter from the Latin gallus, meaning a cock or rooster. He defined grouse as "a fine kind of bird found on heaths," a heath as "common ground," and a common as "land belonging to a number [of persons] and not divided or separated by fences." A heathcock was "a kind of fowl upon heaths, the grous."1 A fowl was, and still is, any bird of the order Galliformes, which includes not only of the domestic chicken, and turkey, but also the wild pheasant and grouse. Now that we have gotten inside Lewis's mind through these words, we are equipped to understand why he referred to some grouse as pheasants.
The word grouse first appeared in the journals on December 15, 1803, at the site of Camp Dubois, when Clark notes "hunters [k]illed Some grouse." The next reference is at White Catfish Camp on July 25, 1804: Clark writes "Several Grous Seen to day." In northeastern Montana on April 15, 1805, Lewis
met with great numbers of Grouse or prarie hens as they are called by the English traders of the N.W.2 these birds appeared to be mating; the note of the male is kuck, kuck, kuck, coo, coo, coo. the first part of the note both male and female use when flying. the male also dubbs [drums with his wings] something like the pheasant, but by no means as loud.
It is probable that he had observed some sharp-tailed grouse, Tympanuchus phasianellus (tim-pan-oo-kuss faze-ee-an-nell-us; "drumming pheasant"), and compared them with the bird we now call the ruffed grouse, but which he knew only as the "common pheasant"—though the New Englanders in the company, such as Alex Willard, might have called them "partridges."
The ring-necked pheasant,Phasianus colchicus
The real cause of our confusion over Lewis's nomenclature is that the word pheasant now brings to mind an exotically colored Asian bird otherwise known as the ring-necked pheasant, a member of the family Phasianidae (fay-see-ahn-ih-dee), from Phasis, the ancient name of the Rion River in the Republic of Georgia, on the Black Sea in the Middle East. The first few Phasianidae, also known as "Chinese" pheasants (Phasianus colchicus; fay-sih-ay-nus col-kih-kus);3 were introduced into California in 1857, and larger numbers were brought to Oregon in the 1880s. Since then, no other bird except the domestic chicken—believed to have been brought to America by Christopher Columbus—has been so widely carried all over the world since Odysseus took some back to Greece from the shores of the Phasis. By the beginning of the 20th century the ring-necks had definitively monopolized the name pheasant. Soon the name grouse defaulted to the three new species—except in some northeastern rural areas where "partridge," and sometimes "common quail," have continued in favor, and in the southern Appalachians, where a ruffed grouse is still, to some people, a "pheasant."
Lewis invoked the word grouse just one more time—in his description of the bird later called the Columbian sharp-tail, which he wrote at Fort Clatsop on March 1, 1806: "The Grouse or Prarie hen is peculiarly the inhabitant of the Great Plains of Columbia"—or, as Clark reworded it, "The Prarie Hen sometimes called the Grouse." Prarie hen and cock of the plains were appropriate alternatives to heathcock, prairie and plains being more descriptive of the broad Northwestern flatlands than heath. When it came to the three new gallinae of the Rocky Mountains, however, Lewis resorted to merely listing the new birds' resemblances and contrasts with "the common pheasant." One more new member of the family Phasianidae that Lewis discovered was the bird he called the "cock of the plains," now called sage grouse. In the field, Lewis drew upon his intimate acquaintance with his own woodlands and their inhabitants, as the basis for much of his analysis of new species.
Up to this point, we have merely addressed the first problem in our consideration of Lewis's choice of a genus. Now we come to the critical problem, the understanding of Lewis's various attempts to identify the species he believed he had found. As Elliott Cous (pronounced cowz) pointed out in his commentary on Biddle's paraphrase of the journals, "No descriptions in L. and C. have teased naturalists more than those here given of the three 'pheasants.' As they stand in the text, they are an odd jumble, utterly irreconcilable with what we know of these birds."4 Confusion has persisted since Cous wrote that in 1893, so, at the expense of historical accuracy and insight, we will reduce those murky taxonomic intracacies into a menu of more easily digestible gallinaceous viands.
1. Noah Webster, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806; facsimile reprint, New York: Crown Publishers, 1970).
2. The "English traders of the N.W." would have been the men of the North West Company at Fort Assiniboine in Canada, such as Charles McKenzie and Charles Larocque, whom Lewis met at Fort Mandan in the winter of 1804-05.
3. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, 7:432-33.
4. Elliott Coues, ed., The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (Reprint, 1893. 3 vols., New York: Dover, 1965), 870-72.
Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee.