This largest member of the grouse family is an impressive creature. The turkey-sized male has dark plumage, a cocked-up fanlike tail, a red spot over the eye and ‘stockings’ covering its legs. The female is much smaller and duller.
The name ‘capercaillie’ comes from Scots Gaelic. It is usually translated as ‘cock of the wood’ but ‘caper’ could also mean ‘horse’, as in the Irish ‘capall’, while ‘caillie’, a ‘wood’, is the equivalent of ‘coill’. Gordon D’Arcy observed that the bird’s calls resemble the sound of a walking horse.
‘Horse of the wood’ might, therefore, be a more appropriate name. Oddly, there is no Irish name.
This relative of the domestic chicken lives in pine and spruce woods. Foresters complain that it eats buds and young shoots, a diet which gives the flesh a turpentine tang. Capercaillies are noisy, especially in early summer when males show off to females at communal arenas known as ‘leks’; the cocks must shout to alert females in the dense forests.
The ‘songs’, consisting of gurgling tapping and champagne-cork-popping noises, are among the loudest of any species. A ‘singing’ capercaillie becomes deaf briefly; there’s a mechanism to prevent its hearing from being damaged by the intense sound.
When the ladies arrive, ‘let the games begin’. The Casanova gladiators fan their tails provocatively, leaping into the air and fighting mock battles.
Capercaillie bones were found at the Mount Sandel Mesolithic site, County Derry, in 1982. According to Gordon D’Arcy, bones dating to the 12th and 13th Centuries have been unearthed in Dublin and elsewhere. The bird was in Ireland long ago but did it survive into modern times?
The Welsh naturalist, Thomas Pennant, noted that there were capercaillies near Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, in 1760. Not everyone agreed, however, that the species was still here as recently as that. Douglas Deane, writing in Irish Birds in 1981, pointed out that there are no actual eye-witness accounts of Irish capercaillies.
All reports of the bird, he claimed, are hearsay, each writer quoting others. The species, he argued, can only survive in pine forests and these ‘had disappeared from the Irish flora before the historic period’. Moreover, 19th Century attempts to reintroduce capercaillies at Glengariff and the Markree Castle estate in Co Sligo, failed.
Deane blames Gerald of Wales, who visited Ireland twice in the 1180s, for misleading everybody. ‘Peacocks of the woods’, Gerald wrote in his Topographica Hibernica, ‘are here abundant’.
This might refer to any of several species, among them the woodcock, which is a wader not a grouse. Subsequent commentators, Deane complains, all refer back ultimately to the gullible, and totally unreliable, Welsh cleric.
J. J. Hall replied to Deane in 1981, dismissing his suggestions. After an exhaustive review, in Irish Birds, of the many historical references to the species here, he concluded that ‘no cogent argument has been produced to show that capercaillies did not occur in Ireland’.
In 1970, there were 20,000 capercaillies in Scotland’s pine forests. A survey six years ago revealed that only 2,200 remained. When the census was repeated in 2015, just 1,114 were counted. Climate change, birds colliding with deer-fences, disturbance by people and encroaching housing developments are blamed for the decline.
Will history repeat itself? The capercaillie disappeared from Scotland and England in the 18th Century; the last member, of what was probably a unique sub-species, being killed in 1785. The birds in Scotland today are not British.
They are descendants of 55 individuals brought from Sweden in 1837 and released on an estate in Perthshire.