Here in the Cairngorms National Park and specifically in Speyside, we are proud and privileged to have one of the UK’s most charismatic birds in our midst. Endangered and understandably illusive, the Capercaillie chooses the woods and forests of the National Park as it’s playground – breeding and nesting, deep amongst the trees and occasionally crashing out of forests, surprising the unwitting visitor and once again reminding those of us who live here that we are the incomers and others, such as the Capercaillie, have been here much, much longer.

It is little surprise then that seeing Capercaillie is often at, or near the top of, any list in a visitor’s pocket and people often have a multitude of questions around this incredible bird. As with any species there will be as many questions about Capercaillie as there are feathers on its back, but we will look for now at those raised most among the visitors we meet at Speyside Wildlife!

How do you pronounce the word Capercaillie and what does the word mean? 

The name Capercaillie dates to the 16th century and is derived from the Scottish Gaelic words ‘Capull Coille’, literally meaning ‘Horse of the Wood’. The pronunciation of Capercaillie is ‘Kapper-kay-lee’.

Where do Capercaillie live and how can I see them?  

Capercaillie are a non-migratory, sedentary species, preferring native pinewood with open canopy and a plentiful supply of plants on the forest floor, especially Blaeberries. They will also live in forestry plantations of Scots Pine, Larch and Spruce, scraping a hollow on the ground for nest building. The nest is lined with moss and feathers in which the hen will lay between five and eight eggs (cream coloured with red/brown markings). Capercaillie depend on this habitat for their survival and much work is being done through a range of partnerships to ensure their protection.

Regarding watching Capercaillie, please see our Speyside Wildlife Caper Watching Policy.

Caledonian Pine Forest (Keith White)
Caledonian Pine Forest (Keith White)

What do Capercaillie look like and how big are they?

Capercaillie are the largest Grouse on the planet! The male, is unsurprisingly, the larger of the two with the female being two thirds his size. From a distance the male appears black however, at closer range a dark blue shimmer can be seen on his throat, shiny dark green on his chest and wings and brown on his back. Red wattles above and around the eyes give the impression of eyebrows and add to the dramatic appearance of the cock of the species. His remarkable tail, when fanned out in display, shows white barring and provides the perfect backdrop for his raised head and hooked bill. The hen, remaining camouflaged to protect her young, is predominantly brown with brown, white and black barring. Males tend to weigh between 3.5kg and 5 kg, with the female weighing between 1.5kg and 2.5kg. These birds can measure between 60 – 78cm in height with a wingspan of 87 – 125cm

Capercaillie (Mark Denman)
Capercaillie (Mark Denman)

Can Capercaillie fly? 

Capercaillie do fly and can occasionally be heard crashing through the branches of trees, with not much to see but a fleeting rush of something large and black. Males will seldom move more than 5km from where they hatch, hens average 11km. The birds are used to flying at speeds of up to 40mph, but this can cause problems when they are met by deer fences, which can cause serious injury and can often be fatal. Work is being carried out to address this issue, with wooden droppers or batons on the fences reducing fatalities by 64%.

Capercaillie Female (Geoff Stubbs)
Capercaillie Female (Geoff Stubbs)

What does a Capercaillie sound like? 

It has been said that the sound of a Capercaillie is like the dripping of a tap, increasing in pace followed by the popping of a cork – a bizarre series of plopping, clicking and gurgling, however you may wish to listen and decide for yourself!

What do Capercaillie eat?

In spring and summer Capercaillie eat the berries, stems and leaves – all parts – of the Blaeberry plant, as well as other forest plants and the insects that live on these. The protein from these insects is vital to the well being of the chicks, who are reared where supply is (hopefully) plentiful. In winter the needles of the Scots Pine become the chosen food of the Capercaillie and in order to properly digest these, the bird must also ensure an intake of grit, so as to break down the needles to aid nutrient absorption.

Caper Poo! (Judith Nott)
Caper Poo! (Judith Nott)

Are Capercaillie protected?

Absolutely. Numbers are now dangerously low. In July 2017 it was estimated there were 1,114 individual Capercaillie in Scotland – a decline from 1,285 in 2011, with Strathspey holding around 83% of the remaining population. In the 1970s there were around 20,000! Habitat loss, poor climate at nesting times and flying into deer fences at the edge of forestry plantations are among reasons blamed for the decline, although there is growing evidence that human disturbance is causing the birds to avoid using large areas of forest which could otherwise be very suitable.

In spring when male Capercaillie are displaying, their lekking sites (the areas where they display) are protected by law, as are areas where there may be nesting birds or chicks. Dog owners understand that by law they must keep their dogs on short leads or close at heel at these times, as outlined in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. Rogue Capercaillies (birds that become aggressive during the displaying season) have been known to attack humans, so it is safer for us, as well as the birds, that we adhere to guidelines!

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