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The Canadian Spruce Grouse Project

Biology Professor Glenn Johnson is entering his 20th year of teaching at SUNY Potsdam and his passion for research projects has not abated. Over the past 20 years, Johnson has conducted research on amphibians, reptiles, the Blanding’s turtle and the spruce grouse. He just returned from Canada after a challenging two-week long trip to find spruce grouse in a remote region of Ontario to be released in the Adirondacks.

“The goal is to increase the population in several of our subpopulations in the Adirondacks, but secondarily it’s to increase the genetic diversity, which has declined precipitously over the years,” Johnson said. “When genetic diversity gets low, they cannot adapt well and it could lead to real problems, inbreeding problems.”

After a trip to Maine for the same purpose in early July, Johnson embarked on a journey to Canada for a remote region of Northern Ontario with seven employees from the Department for Environmental Conservation—three of whom were SUNY Potsdam alumni. This was Johnson’s fifth time traveling to Canada as part of the spruce grouse project.

After arriving in Cochrane, Ontario, a solid nine-hour drive from Potsdam, the team headed east on the Translimit Road to search the area for the spruce grouse. Without teeth, the birds will often be seen eating tiny pebbles on the side of the road to help with digestion. Johnson and his team kept a close eye out for the birds, often looking around blueberry bushes along the remote roadways. “We also play tapes of chicks and that brings out the females. They’re very protective—they hear that sound and they become visible,” Johnson said.

After catching the birds, they headed back to the campsite to place the grouse in a screen tent. With the threat of bears, raccoons and other predators all around, Johnson has been lucky during past trips to the same location, but unfortunately not this time around. On the first night, much like a scene from the Fantastic Mr. Fox, a clever red fox snuck into camp, tearing a hole in the screen and snatching two of the grouse. “As soon as we had some birds in there, he took one. Like a hen house, he’s going to be back every day,” Johnson recalled.

With the fox on the prowl every night, the researchers had to keep a close eye on their birds.  After a week at the site, they had found 20 birds to introduce into the Adirondacks. There was just one more step before driving home. Because they were captured in Canada, the birds needed to be tested for two poultry diseases: Newcastle disease and Avian influenza. They met a veterinarian who swabbed the spruce grouse and the sample is packed up to be sent to the lab in Ames, Iowa for testing. Once the results are faxed back to the veterinarian, they are ready to head home! However, the fax never arrived.

“The problem was, somewhere in Canada the samples were lost, the swabs were lost. They never got to Ames, they never got to customs,” Johnson said.

Rather than sending new samples and waiting another week for the results, especially with a red fox prowling around the area, they decided to box up the birds and head straight to Newburgh, N.Y., to be quarantined. From there, the samples were sent to Iowa, came back negative and the grouse headed to Tupper Lake to be released into the wild.

The birds’ fate will continue to be monitored as they make their new home in the Adirondacks. Johnson said that a radio transmitter is placed on each bird before it’s released into the wild.

“We track them almost daily for a while to see what they do. Do they take off? Do they stay still? Most of them actually stay fairly near the release—we pick places wisely. After a year, their home ranges are roughly the same as our resident birds, so we know they’re behaving normally. Also, we’ve had both Maine and Canada birds mate and have babies here, so we’ve gone that far and seen those results,” Johnson said.

After a sabbatical last semester where he worked on several projects, including reptile surveys in Arizona’s Barry M. Goldwater Range, his trips to Maine and Canada for the grouse project, and his continued work locally with his Blanding’s turtle research, Johnson is getting ready to hit the classroom again. This fall, he will be teaching a class on the natural history of lower vertebrates and the biology of woody plants. For more information about the Department of Biology, visit: