Author(s): Michael A. Schroeder
"The flesh of the cock of the Plains is dark, and only tolerable in point of flavour. I do not think it as good as either the Pheasant or Grouse." These words were spoken by Meriwether Lewis on March 2, 1806, at Fort Clatsop near present-day Astoria, Oregon. They were noteworthy not only for their detail but for the way they illustrate the process of acquiring new information. A careful reading of the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (transcribed by Gary E. Moulton, 1986-2001, University of Nebraska Press) reveals that all of the species referred to in the first quote are grouse, two of which had never been described in print before.
In 1803-06 Lewis and Clark led a monumental three-year expedition up the Missouri River and its tributaries to the Rocky Mountains, down the Columbia River and its tributaries to the Pacific Ocean, and back again. Although most of us are aware of adventurous aspects of the journey such as close encounters with indigenous peoples and periods of extreme hunger, the expedition was also characterized by an unprecedented effort to record as many aspects of natural history as possible. No group of animals illustrates this objective more than the grouse.
The journals include numerous detailed summary descriptions of grouse and more than 80 actual observations, many with enough descriptive information to identify the species. What makes Lewis and Clark so unique in this regard is that other explorers of the age rarely recorded adequate details. For example, during 1807-12 in the Montana, Idaho, Washington, and British Columbia area, David Thompson recorded nine observations of grouse, with the simple description of "partridge." In one additional case the observed bird was referred to as a "white partridge," likely a grouse now known as a white-tailed ptarmigan. In contrast, Lewis and Clark provided a 300-plus-word description of the greater sagegrouse, along with numerous details associated with specific observations of sage-grouse along their route. They also provided comparable information for the five other grouse species observed on their journey, including greater prairiechicken, sharp-tailed grouse, blue grouse, spruce grouse, and ruffed grouse. This comparison is not meant to diminish the accomplishments of early explorers like David Thompson, for his writings are actually quite insightful. Rather, it is meant to illustrate the unprecedented natural history content of the journals of Lewis and Clark.
Fred C. Zwickel (retired professor, University of Alberta) and I examined the transcribed journals for all references to grouse. We were not the first along this path, and likely will not be the last. Most notably, in 1893 Elliott Coues produced The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (reprinted by Dover Publications), in which he itemized many of the species described, included grouse. Coues stated, "No descriptions in L. and C. have teased naturalists more than those here given of the . . . â€˜pheasants.â€™ As they stand in the text, they are an odd jumble, utterly irreconcilable with what we know of these birds. I could make nothing of them in 1876, and gave the matter up, supposing the authors had written from memory and confused several species."
One of the purposes of our recent effort was to resolve some of the identifications that were either questionable or unresolved in light of current knowledge. Some of the direct quotes (with most of original punctuation and spelling) are provided below to give a taste of the richness of the journals.
The greater prairie-chicken was the first grouse species mentioned in the journals. On November 16, 1803, near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, Lewis wrote: "Saw a heath hen or grows which flew of and having no gun with me did not persue it." From the eight observations of greater prairie-chickens that were written between southern Illinois and southeastern South Dakota, it is clear that Lewis and Clark recognized this bird as the familiar heath hen, still present at that time in the northeastern United States. They were able to distinguish this species from the similar sharp-tailed grouse because the greater prairiechicken has a tail "composed of feathers of equal length." On September 2, 1806, on the return trip near the confluence of the James and Missouri Rivers, along the Nebraska-South Dakota border, Clark wrote: "I saw 4 prarie fowls Common to the Illinois, those are the highest up which have been Seen."