Grouse Identification Tips

How to Identify Grouse, Quail and Partridges

Habitat, colors and markings all help identify this sage-grouse. Tom Koerner / USFWS

Quail, grouse and partridges are some of the most cryptically plumaged, heavily camouflaged game birds, which can make identifying them a challenge even for experienced birders. Careful study and identification practice, however, can make determining these species easier, and every birder can sharpen their grouse and quail identification skills.

Quail Identification Equipment

The proper tools are necessary for identifying grouse and quail, and a properly equipped birder will have an easier time identifying these mystery birds.

  • Optics: Good quality birding binoculars are a must to see quail and grouse clearly, particularly since these birds can be skittish and it is best if birders keep their distance. Wide lenses will collect more light so subtle color changes and fine markings are more easily visible, and a spotting scope can be useful when looking for grouse and quail in open grassland habitats.
  • Field Guide: A good field guide for grouse, quail, partridges and similar terrestrial birds will feature not only drawings or photographs of the birds, but will show plumages for both males and females, as well as detailed range maps that can help better pinpoint which birds are likely to be seen where.
  • Clothing: While what a birder wears won't make identifying the birds easier, opting for pattern disrupting camouflage clothing can help birders get closer to quail without spooking the birds, which can help them get better views of confusing species. A birding hat is useful for disguising the face, and clothing fabric should be soft and quiet when worn.

    Identifying Grouse and Quail on Sight

    While many of these game birds look the same, there are subtle differences between species that offer good clues for birders who want to properly identify grouse and quail. When looking at these birds, check for these clues for accurate identification…

    • Shape: Is the bird large or small? Does it have a round body or more of an oval shape with a thicker neck? How does the head size compare to the body? What are the bird's overall proportions?
    • Colors: Is the plumage warm with brown tones or cool with gray tones? Are there any distinct patches of bright colors such as red, yellow or chestnut? Do the colors sharply contrast on the body or are they more diffuse?
    • Head: Does the bird have a crest or top knot? Is the crest fully feathered, bulbous or wispy? Are there distinct markings, bands or colors on the face? What color is the bill? Does the bird show distinct eyebrows or eye lines?
    • Upperparts: Are the upperparts relatively plain or do they show mottled or streaked markings? What colors are the upperparts, and where do the colors change?
    • Underparts: Are there any patches of color on the underparts? Do the feathers seem uniform, scaled or scalloped? Are there streaks or barring on the flanks?
    • Tail: How long is the tail? Is it stubby compared to the body size, or does it flow behind the bird? What color is the tail, and does it show any bands, spots or a colored tip? Is it blunt or pointed?
    • Legs and Feet: What color are the legs and feet? Are they long or short? Are the legs feathered or bare? How large are the talons?

    Even when observing grouse and quail closely, it may be impossible to identify the birds by appearance alone.

    Savvy birders, however, will use visual clues in addition to other indications to correctly identify these puzzling birds.

    Other Ways to Identify Grouse

    In addition to the bird's appearance, consider these factors when identifying terrestrial game birds…

    • Range: While there are a number of very similar game birds that can be hard to tell apart by appearance alone, their ranges do not always overlap closely and it is often possible to use range as a concrete clue for accurate identification.
    • Habitat: Some grouse are strictly grassland birds, while others are only found in forests and still others are most comfortable on rocky slopes or in desert areas. The habitat the bird is found in can be a prime clue for its identity.
    • Sounds: Grouse and quail aren't always vocal, but when they are calling, their voices can be loud and their songs are distinct and easy to hear. Carefully birding by ear and listening to those sounds can help birders identify different species.
    • Foods: What a bird eats can be an important clue for its identity, and while many of these birds are granivorous, some prefer nuts, leaves or may even hunt for small prey such as lizards or amphibians. Watching what the bird eats can help identify the species.
    • Displays: Many grouse and quail have elaborate courtship displays such as fanning their tail, displaying a ruff, drooping wings, puffing their chest or even dancing to attract females' attention. Birders fortunate enough to see these displays can have an easier time identifying the birds.

    It can be a dream to see grouse, quail, pheasants, partridges and similar birds, but it can be a nightmare to properly identify them. By learning what field marks to watch and what other clues are best, however, every birder can confidently identify grouse and quail.

    Photo – Greater Sage-Grouse © Tom Koerner / USFWS