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What is the Capercaillie? The iconic Scottish bird 'at risk of extinction'

In the ancient woodlands of the Highlands of Scotland, you might be lucky enough to come across one of the country's most recognisable birds. The capercaillie is a large grouse with the male having striking black, brown and green plumage and red-ridged eyes.

The largest of the grouse family, the capercaillie is at real risk of extinction in Scotland due to the fact there are only thought to be 542 of these magnificent birds left in the wild. Over 80% of the species are found within the Cairngorm National Park.

Shy and elusive they can be found foraging on forest floors or in low-lying branches of trees eating berries and shrubs.

Fiercely territorial, the males' distinctive calls - which sound like hollow pieces of wood being struck together – can be heard in the pine forests of the Highlands as they challenge each other to prove their dominance.

So brave are these birds when they are roused, they will happily challenge creatures four or five times their size – including any human who crosses their path. Fanning their tale feathers behind them, they will charge across forest floors ready to fight.

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Vicious battles can often erupt between two rivals with some of the birds often being badly injured in these fights for mating rights. The smaller brown females will then flock to the winner of these bouts to breed.

Sadly, the species is now thought to be in serious decline, with the population having dropped by around 50% since the last survey six years ago. They are now at a critical level.

Threats to their survival include colder weather, which affects the fitness of the females and survival rates of the chicks, while fragmented habitats are also harming their ability to breed.

Charities are now calling for step-up conservation projects to save this iconic animal.

Nick Wilkinson, conservation scientist at RSPB Scotland, said: "Previous surveys have seen numbers fluctuating between around 1,000 and 2,000 birds so it's really worrying that the results from last winter indicate there are only an estimated 542 individuals remaining now.

"These results will help focus efforts on where action should be targeted to help capercaillie by identifying their strongholds and where the most impact can be made for them."

The first species to be deliberately reintroduced into the UK, from Sweden in 1837, after being hunted to extinction, several groups have now banded together to try to rally the species by protecting the chicks when they are young and vulnerable using techniques such as reducing predation, keeping dog walkers and mountain bikers away from their breeding grounds and trying to expand their habitats.

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