In the ages past on our Polish lands the largest European grouse, though not exactly common, was one of the many dwellers of the forest which could be spotted if one tried. Today it is not so. 

Silesian Beskids were inhabited by the wood grouse "since forever". Their numbers were such that local hunters enjoyed hunting them for a long time and with great results. In the middle of the XIX century even the rulers of the Teschen Chamber, Habsburgs, became interested in hunting this bird. Thus one can see that for a long time wood grouse was a game bird. Only in the year 1995, it became a protected species. At long last – or perhaps too late, as taking Silesian Beskids as an example, during the interwar period and shortly after the war their numbers were around 400, and in the years 1999-2002 only 10 were found.

"During my forestry studies, I got my hands on a book released before the war by Andrzej Czudka titled Wood grouse in Silesian forests. I learned from it many things, among them the fate which befell wood grouse during the times of Habsburgs and after Poland regained its independence. Later, when I started to work in Forest Inspectorate Wisła, I learned more about the situation of the bird, not only in Silesian Beskids but also in other parts of the country. I started to ponder about the restoration of this species. I enlisted the help of Witold Szozda (Forest Inspector) and Tadeusz Norman (Director of State Forests in Katowice),” says Zenon Rzońca, vice-forest inspector in charge of genetics in Wisła Forest Inspectorate, the initiator of the said initiative.

Taking into account that the populace of wood grouse was almost completely extirpated in the Beskids, thus the danger of interbreeding was very real, it was decided that injection of fresh "fresh blood" was needed. The chosen option was the wild specimen from Belarus. The Minister of Environment gave the green light and the project started. At the start of XXI, the aviary for wood grouse restoration was created at the top of Wyrchczadeczka, near Istebna. The total cost of the buildings and furnishings, which were finished in the year 2002, was 1,25 million PLN. It was financed mainly by grants from National Funds for Protection of Environment and EkoFundusz, helped with Forestry Funds from State Forests and nominal share from the national budget. 

From the area around Pińsk above the river Prypeć, 15 eggs taken from the nests of wild wood grouse were brought to Wyrchczadeczka. From those 13 chicks hatched – 3 males and 10 females. And that was the start.

Life on the summit

Zenon Rzońca could spend hours talking animatedly about what happened in the project during the two decades of its run. To write it down, one would end up with a thick book, or perhaps even a trilogy. We shall only quote a few excerpts.

- During those years, we kept polishing the breeding process and the buildings dedicated to the repopulation project. When in the year 2004 beneath Barania Mountain we released into the wilds our first wood grouse, the last part of the project was the adaptive aviary. In September, just after the chicks molted, the birds raised on Wyrchczadeczka were moved to those adaptive aviaries. In there, the young were to get used to the terrain for a month, after which they were released into the wild. The feed they had access to was natural and only what they found, though we did supplement it with oat during the hard times.

It was not much later that the first worrisome signs reached Zenon Rzońca. The first birds released into the wild were seen on the household’s roofs. They did not fear humans. 

In the year 2005 next to the aviaries on Wyrchczadeczka enclosures were built. This wide area, covered by nets during spring, allowed the wood grouses to reach the forest and make nests there. The intent was for the birds to not feel isolated from the world by living in the wooden aviaries. However, it was soon discovered that while the metal mesh fence, encircled with electric fence, protected the females with chicks from large predators it was not so when it came to the smaller predators that feasted on the young, such as weasels. Thus on the small man-made mounds in the enclosure special baskets-shelters with small entrances were put. As such, the weasels could no longer attack the nest from behind and the female wood grouse protecting the entrance was more than enough to give the thieving weasel a proper send-off.

Family Crossing

Now, to each adaptive aviary, already in September young mothers with their small family are brought in. The parts for the females to reside were specially prepared and reconstructed in such a way that the chicks could easily move around, come in and out but the mothers could not do so. After 2 to 4 weeks of such joint stay, the nestlings were allowed to go outside and learn the terrain and forests. Though the mothers are locked, the chicks still can see and hear them. In autumn, the young birds are independent enough that they can their own living space. It is only then that the mothers are taken back to the breeding aviaries.

Starting from the year 2008 the wood grouses were released straight from the enclosures next to breeding aviaries. Just like with the earlier variant, the female bird's freedom was restricted, but the young ones could see and communicate with their mother, while slowly discovering more and more of the forest. In that way, the birds were saved from the stress of catching the birds and moving them from the breeding aviary to the adaptive one.

In the year 2006 10 birds were fitted with satellite telemetry transmitters. Thanks to this it was known that about 50 percent of released birds survive in wild for over a year. Zenon Rzońca says that while it might seem like a small number, but one ought to remember that in nature the wood grouse have a much lower survival rate. In the first year, only 10 to 30 percent survive. In Finland, the country with the greatest forest density in Europe, only 7 percent of chicks live through their first year.

Since the year 2002, the revival project on Wyrchczadecka released over 1100 young wood grouse. Over half of the numbers were released in Silesian Beskids while over 300 were released in Bory Dolnosląskie and Beskid Sądecki. Several dozens were sold to a breeding farm in Leżajsk i Głęboki Gród forest inspectorate, Park of Wild Animals in Kadzidłów as well to breeding farms in Czech, Germany, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Ukraine.

New Stage

 - In the year 2019 we released few birds, only 20. Some time ago we noticed that it is harder and harder to raise chicks. In past, each year we had around a hundred nestlings, then it fell to 60 and then even lower. For 15 years we managed without pharmacological agents. In the end, we had to use them to protect the birds from parasitic disease, coccidiosis. However, we are left with the issue of nematodes, which appear because of the change in the soil acidity in the enclosures. Though a few months old chick of wood grouse is still a chick, it is a very big bird. A hundred such chicks produce many excrements and all the corresponding issues. This is a problem we have to face without resorting to chemical agents. Last year, we sent an application to the State Forests to build, near the existing breeding aviary, a new one. It was approved and the investment has started. We are to receive the building in June 2020. - Zenon Rzońc is most glad about this fact.

The investment is to cost 836,000 PLN – all financed by Forestry Funds. The new aviary will allow the old one to be unused for at least two years. This will allow the soil to rest and naturally return to proper pH and thus get rid of the parasites. During that time the unused land will be recultivated, allowing the land to rest and grow as well as refresh the undergrowth. Mission “wood grouse” will have a continuation.

Author: Krzysztof Fronczak, Lasy Państwowe