Say's Tetrao obscurus

Thomas Say's Tetrao obscurus

It is instructive to compare Lewis's description of the ruffed grouse with the scientific description written by Thomas Say in 1819. For his part, Lewis not only was a newcomer to the science of ornithology but also faced many other demands on his time and attention during the expedition. Say devoted his whole life to the natural sciences, and as a member of Stephen Long's expedition in 1819-201 was expected to focus his attention on plants and animals, bringing to bear his education and experience in the application of the Linnæan system of classification.

Say carried a copy of Nicholas Biddle's edition of the captains' journals. Biddle's paraphrase of Lewis's description of the ruffed grouse, which contained enough ambiguities to spawn vigorous debate as to which one of the three he really meant, reads as follows:

The small brown pheasant is an inhabitant of the same country,2 and is of the same size and shape as the speckled pheasant,3 which he likewise resembles in his habits. The stripe above the eye in this species is scarcely perceptible; it is, when closely examined, of a yellow or orange color, instead of the vermilion of the other species. The color is a uniform mixture of dark yellowish-brown with a slight aspersion of brownish-white on the breast, belly, and feathers underneath the tail; the whole appearanhce has much the resemblance of the common quail. This bird is also booted to the toes. The flesh of this is preferable to the other two.

That bird, which Lewis had described in his own words as a "brown and yellow species," is known today as Dendragapus obscurus (Say). Say's description is more precisely detailed, while acknowledging his indebtedness to Lewis and Clark.

A female bird was shot on the mountain which closely resembles, both in size and figure, the females of the black game (Tetrao tetrix).4 It is, however, of a darker colour, and the plumage is not so much banded, the tail also seems rather longer, and the feathers of it do not exhibit any tendency to curve outward, which, if we mistake not, is exhibited by the inner feathers of the tail of the corresponding sex of the black game.

Its general colour is a black-brown, with narrow bars of pale ocraceous [orange-yellow]; plumage near the base of the beak above tinged with ferruginous [rust-colored]; each feather on the head with a single band and slight tip; those of the neck, back, tail-coverts [small feathers over tail], and breast, two bands and tip; the tips on the upper part of the back and on the tail-coverts are broad and spotted with black, with the inferior band often obsolete [vestigal, imperfectly developed]; the throat and inferior portion of the upper sides of the neck are covered with whitish feathers, on each side of which is a black band or spot; a white band on each feather of the breast, becoming broader on those nearer the belly; on the belly the plumage is dull cinereous [ash-colored] with concealed white lines on the shafts; the wing coverts and scapulars [shoulder feathers], about two-banded with a spotted tip and second band, and with the tip of the shaft white; the primaries [toward end of wing] and secondaries [inner portion of wing] have whitish zig-zag spots on their outer webs, the first feather of the former short, the second longer, the third, fourth, and fifth equal, longest; feathers of the sides with two or three bands and white spot at the tip of the shaft; inferior [under] tail coverts white with a black band and base, and slightly tinged with ocraceous on their centres; legs feathered to the toes, and with the thighs pale, undulated with dusky; tail rounded, with broad terminal band of cinereous, on which are black zig-zag spots; on the intermediate feathers are several ocraeous spotted bands, but these become obsolete and confined to the exterior webs on the lateral feathers, until they are hardly perceptible on the exterior pair; a naked space above and beneath the eyes. It may be distinguished by the name of the dusky grouse (Tetrao obscurus).

When this bird flew it uttered a cackling note a little like that of the domestic fowl: this note was noticed by Lewis and Clark in the bird which they speak of under the name of the cock of the plains [the sage grouse], and to which Mr. Ord [botanist George Ord (1781-1866)] has applied the name of Tetrao fusca, a bird which, agreeably to their description, appears to be different from this, having the legs only half booted: the "fleshy protuberance about the base of the upper chop," and "the long point tail" of that bird may possibly be sexual distinctions.

It appears by the observations of Lewis and Clark that several species of this genus inhabit the country which they traversed, particularly in this elevated range of mountains from whence, amongst other interesting animals, they brought to Philadelphia a specimen of the spotted grouse (T. canadensis [spruce grouse]) which, together with the above described bird, are now preserved in the Philadephia Museum, thus proving that the spotted grouse is an inhabitant of a portion of the territory of the United States.

Lewis used the word grouse only in reference to the sage grouse (Centrocercus europhasianus) and the sharp-tailed grouse (formerly Pediocetes phasianellus, now Tympanuchus phasianellus), and not in connection with the three new "pheasants" he found along K'useneiskit. His "brown and yellow speceis," which Say named Tetrao obscurus is now Bonasa umbellus.

1. Edwin James, compiler, Account of An Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains Performed in the Years 1819 and '20 . . . under the command of Stephen H. Long (2 vols., Philadelphia: H. C. Carey, 1823), 1:14-15n.

2. That is, "that portion of the Rocky Mountain watered by the Columbia river." Lewis, March 3, 1806.

3. The reference is to Lewis's description of what was probably a female spruce grouse, and not a separate species.

4. The genus Tetrao was named in Linnæus's taxonomy. It is still valid in Great Britain and Continental Europe, but no members of that genus have been identified in North America. All three of Lewis's "phesants" belong to the Family Tetraoninae, meaning "black game-bird."

Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee