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The capercaillie is a bird the size of a turkey that lives in the Scots pinewoods in the north of Scotland. They became extinct in Britain in 1785 and have been reintroduced at various times since 1837. The capercaillie is well known for the strange clicking, gulping and saw whetting calls that males make when they display at clearings in the woods known as leks.


Capercaillie (Terao urogallus)



In spring, males (cocks) gather at leks to strut and posture, fanning their tails and making their strange calls to maintain their status with other cocks. Sometimes, these displays become ferocious fights that can result in injury. The females (hens) visit the leks and mate with their chosen male. They then nest and rear the young with no help from the male.


The capercaillie nest scrape is hidden in the heather or among the roots of a tree. The female usually lays 5 - 8 eggs, which take 28 days to hatch.


Young capercaillie leave the nest within a day of hatching, although the adult female continues to offer them shelter from the weather and protection against predators.


Adult birds eat shoots and buds of conifer trees and a wide variety of berries. Young chicks feed on the insects they find in the ground vegetation.


The main threat to the capercaillie's survival is poor breeding caused by the change in weather patterns over recent years. Prolonged cool weather in spring prevents the females from feeding well enough to get into breeding condition. Wet summers chill chicks that are already struggling to find enough food to grow rapidly to adult size in one short summer.

To add to the pressure on the birds, foxes kill nesting females and vulnerable chicks, and crows take clutches of egg. Now that numbers are dangerously low and breeding birds are unable to sustain even a level population, the deaths caused by birds flying into deer fences has become very important.


The male capercaillie is a large bird that is usually seen as a black silhouette when it flies out of the top of a Scots pine tree. It is unlikely to be mistaken for any other bird. The female capercaillie can be confused with a greyhen (female Black grouse) and they can both be found in the same habitat. The female capercaillie is larger and is distinguished by a rust red patch on her breast and a longer, more rounded tail than the greyhen.

How we manage our woods

We are working with partners including the RSPB and the Scottish Biodiversity Group Capercaillie Steering Group to protect the capercaillie. In 2001, the Scottish Executive financed the removal of surplus deer fences and the marking of deer fences. An EU-funded Caledonian Partnership European LIFE 2002 project is helping to benefit the capercaillie through predator control, vegetation management and monitoring. Developing management policies is helping to spread best practice. 

Capercaillie close up

Vital statistics

Length: male 86 cm, female 62 cm
Numbers in Britain: dangerous low

Useful sites

England's Woods and Forests are cared for by Forest Enterprise England, an agency of the Forestry Commission.