The Western Capercaillie is a northern Eurasian (Palearctic) species of grouse and the largest member of the family, a mature male weighting up to about seven kilograms (approximately sixteen pounds). The females are only about half as big as the males, and differently patterned. This painting started as just an experiment with a medium for oils called Liquin©, which was okay, but I made the mistake of mixing it with turpentine, roughing out parts of the bird and the background, and then leaving it to dry. But it would not dry for me and I had to wait two years for it to dry enough (although still a little tacky) to finish the painting. I would not have bothered but I liked how it was going, so wanted to complete it, but it is still sticky to the touch in places and I suspect it will take a few more years to dry (or “cure”…technically oil paintings don’t really dry) enough to frame.
Numerous artists superior to me, such as the Swedish Bruno Liljefors (1860 – 1939) and the Finnish Ferdinand von Wright (1822 – 1906), have brilliantly shown this species in its famous breeding display, usually males challenging each other. Since this was just an experiment for me I decided to leave it at just a single male, and to make it more original I showed one of the “white bellied” eastern subspecies, T. u. taczanowskii, not normally featured in paintings of capercaillies. Taczanowskii is found in Central Siberia south into northwestern Mongolia and eastern Kazakhstan. There are about a dozen subspecies of Western Capercaillie, most obviously varying by the amount of white on the belly of males, black with some white spots in the west (Europe), but with the amount of white increasing moving east.
This is mostly a species of boreal forest (taiga). It has various colloquial names, but “capercaillie” derives from Scottish Gaelic, capall coille, “horse of the wood”, with current spelling standardized in 1843. The species was first described by Carl Linnaeus in his 10th edition of Systema Naturae, in 1758, although as a large gamebird be assured its ancestors would have been known to humans back as far as the days of the Neanderthal. Among other things the black beak distinguishes this species from its nearest relative, the Black-billed Capercaillie (T. parvirostris) found in eastern Russia, Mongolia and northern China.
While the population has been reduced, in some cases extirpated, mostly by too much hunting and/or habitat loss, a distinct disjunct subspecies in Spain left over from the ice age faced an added, rather odd threat: Holly harvest. Holly berries are an important food source and the removal of plants from the wild for Christmas decorations threatened to wipe out the subspecies. There are less than 1000 of the so-called Cantabrian Capercaillie (T. u. cantabricus) remaining.
For the species overall, monoculture timber plantations have replaced much natural habitat, and is not suitable for capercaillie. They require openings and old mixed forests blended with both evergreen and broadleaf tree species and good ground cover with lots of heath berries and healthy invertebrate population – chicks consume a lot of insects.
This painting is in oils on acid-free Masonite, and measures about 11 by 16 inches.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731
31 Colonel Butler Drive
Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada