Science

What is a capercaillie, this majestic bird whose video buzz on the internet?

For a few days now, an almost mythical and mysterious bird has been the star of the web. This is the capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), who appears charismatic in a video shot by a cross-country skier. From this video, we do not know who filmed it, or where. On the other hand, the bird is not unknown to ornithologists.

Wings flapping and cries: the capercaillie knows how to make itself understood

The long snowy alley is free. The cross-country skier, author of this video which made the buzz on the net, commits to it without further fear. Suddenly, his gaze fell on a plump, black figure on the side. The skier ends up falling to the ground. The bird, a male capercaillie, approaches the athlete looking menacing, adopting a stiff posture and letting out guttural sounds. A doubt remains as to the location of this scene. Some media mention the Dolomites, a mountain range located in Italy. Others speak of Šumava National Park in Czechia or even France. However, the identification of the species is not in doubt.

The capercaillie is a bird of the galliformes family. “The male weighs 3 to 6 kg, the plumage is dark (black and brown, except for the carroncules – the ‘eyebrows’ – bright red). The female, smaller (1.5 to 2.2 kg), has light plumage (reddish beige)“observes the site of the national parks of France. It has a life expectancy of between 15 and 20 years and feeds on pine needles in winter, leaves, buds and berries in spring. In a video published in 2019 on Youtube, the National Museum of Natural History presented the incredible courtship display of the capercaillie. The males gather in clearings – or place of song – to seduce the females. Wing beats, “wheel” and cry: all the means are good to please a partner.

A bird sensitive to tourism

Forest bird, the capercaillie is present in France in the Jura, the Vosges, the Cévennes and the Pyrenees. They would be approximately 4,500 on the national territory and this population is in decline. It is also present in other European countries with a strong presence in Central and Eastern Europe. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates the number of sexually mature individuals in the world at less than six million, a number that is declining.

As mentioned in 2009 by researchers in the journal Journal of Applied Ecology, the capercaillie are indeed not fervent admirers of skiers. Tourism increases the stress level in this bird, which could adversely affect its physical form and its ability to reproduce successfully, ecologists explained. Working in the southern Black Forest in Germany, they had collected bird droppings before and after the start of the ski season, and analyzed it to assess levels of the stress hormone corticosterone. They had thus been able to observe “that the levels of the breakdown products of the stress hormone were significantly higher in birds living in areas with moderate or high ski tourism“, noted a statement.”We recommend that managers keep forests inhabited by capercaillie away from tourist infrastructure and keep patches of forest intact in ski areas.“, explained Dr. Lukas Jenni, co-author of the study.


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