Nature Notes: Ruffed Grouse
It was a brisk but glorious winter day, dazzling blue sky, no wind and ten inches of diamond-bright powder on top of a two-foot base. Snowshoeing through the aspens on my way to prune some old apple trees, my hands were full of tools. Pruning is far easier when standing on solid ground but Mother Nature had other plans for my March visit to the farm. As I lifted a snowshoe to take another step, a phantom exploded out of the snow in front of me! My heart shuddered and I crumpled on my side in utter shock…
Okay, I am not really superstitious, and it clearly was not a ghost that scared the living daylights out of me. I like to think that I am not all that excitable but we all have our moments, right? That blasted bird blew out of the snow at just the wrong moment, what is clearly a nasty habit of the diabolical ruffed grouse in my experience. Yes, I did utter a strong word and it was not the colloquial Maine term for this lovely bird, “pah’-tridge.”
The bird was surely terrified, disturbed from her rest while snow roosting. She was smart enough to spend the night under cover, conserving energy, hiding from predators just a few feet from the aspen where she had fed the prior afternoon. Normally the bird’s head pops out first to make sure all is well before emerging from the snow but my arrival jump-started things. If I had a nose like a fox or eyes like a hawk that grouse would have been dinner!
The ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) weighs just 24 ounces, medium-sized among ten different grouse species in North America. They live along the Appalachian Mountains then across the northern US states and Canada, a bird of the forest rather than the plains like sage or prairie grouse. Out of roughly 15 subspecies, in Maine we host the St. Lawrence or Canada subspecies of the ruffed grouse. Its range overlaps with the smaller spruce grouse, but the birds tend to use different habitats, with the ruffed grouse favoring mixed upland forest cover while the spruce grouse is more common in lowland coniferous cover. A look at its plumage reveals that the beautiful ruffed grouse is perfectly equipped to vanish in mixed cover. They tend to roost in trees most of the year, and are capable of rapid flight over short distances to escape danger.
I love the subtle mix of browns and tans on a ruffed grouse, similar to the smaller American woodcock. There are distinctive black bands across the tail feathers most visible when the grouse fans its tail during courtship displays, also seen on wild turkeys. The crest on their head pops up when the birds are disturbed or nervous. Notice the darker feathers around the neck that can be lifted in a ring known as the ruff, the source of the bird’s name. The birds have a crop to store food eaten quickly and can reliably be seen “graveling” along quiet roads or trails, picking up small pebbles that are used in the gizzard to macerate food. Ruffed grouse have evolved two color morphs, one shaded red and the other gray, the primary coloration in our state. The sexes are nearly identical except for slightly longer tails on the males. The only definitive identification is an internal organ check, pretty tough on the birds!
The grouse can be particular about food, especially in winter when they specialize on protein and energy rich buds or seed catkins of trees, primarily the quaking aspen, along with the various cherry and birch trees. The rest of the year the birds feed on leaves, ferns, insects and fruit. They have also been observed eating salamanders and small snakes. In autumn I have seen grouse perched in apple trees pecking away at the delicious fruit. In common with most small birds during the early growth phase, chicks dine heavily on insects whose high protein and fat content fuel rapid growth. To deal with skin pests grouse will dust themselves regularly. Ideal habitat for ruffed grouse contains trees of various ages, especially aspens, with some conifers mixed in for shelter from weather and predators. This habitat may be created by fire, logging operations or major storms like the Long Island Express, a category five hurricane of September 1938 that toppled 25 percent of forests in New England.
Unlike birds that cover long distances in search of food and favorable weather, ruffed grouse are home-bodies. Resident rather than migratory, the territory for a ruffed grouse might be just a handful of acres of forest. If that territory meets the bird’s needs, he might remain there for life, defending it when necessary and doing his best to attract mates. In addition to food and shelter, the ruffed grouse has a unique requirement for a downed log, large rock or earthen mound within his territory. Throughout the year but peaking during the breeding season, the male will spend hours each day atop his favorite spot in a ritual called “drumming.” This involves fanning his wings at high speed, up to 50 times over eight to ten seconds, creating a vacuum behind the wings that yields a low vibrating sound that carries over 1,000 yards through the forest. The drumming is intended to warn off other males and alert females to his presence.
While grouse are normally active during daylight hours, the urge to breed is so strong that drumming may carry into the night, making the male more vulnerable to predation. Ruffed grouse do not pair up, so drumming may continue as the male tries to attract multiple females to his lair. Individual females are willing to mate for only a few days but the timing varies among birds. After mating the female wanders off to select a nest site in the woods, either at the base of a stump or in the shelter of a brush pile or shrub. In the past I have found nests in leaf litter under apple trees in cover.
Up to fourteen eggs are laid over a week or two, incubated only by the female for about three weeks, the eggs generally hatching within hours of each other. Raccoons, weasels, snakes and ravens are among the critters willing to raid a nest if possible. The chicks are mobile soon after birth (termed “precocial”) so the family moves within a couple days to more open cover. There the female keeps watch while her brood forages. If a predator approaches, the female will try to bluff them away by squealing and hissing while spreading her wings or she will use the “broken wing” ploy, murmuring and dragging one wing in hopes of leading the predator away. I will never forget watching my pal Lane trying to shoo a bunch of tiny chicks off a Downeast highway when their mother came to the rescue. At the last second Lane spotted the hen running up behind him and jumped about three feet in the air! By autumn family units break up as young birds disperse to find new homes of their own.
Ruffed grouse have experienced many changes in the last two centuries. While Native Americans used fire to clear small fields for growing maize, thousands of European settlers cleared millions of acres of forest for their farms. The resulting mixed habitat was ideal for grouse and they flourished. By the late 1800’s market hunting grew as people in larger cities were happy to pay for one of the tastiest game birds around. Most of Maine is not blessed with the fertile soil nor the weather for farming success so in the 1900’s the majority of farms were abandoned, the land reverting to early successional forest. Again, this was favorable for ruffed grouse, and also the white-tailed deer. But as the forests matured, there was less regeneration so grouse populations dropped.
Recently the active management of our forests has resulted in enough high value habitat to keep the ruffed grouse population at a healthy level. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife has a long-term management goal for ruffed grouse in line with population and harvest numbers from the last few decades. They hope to retain a fall population of adult ruffed grouse around two million and annual harvests by hunters of 500,000 birds. Despite steep population losses for other game birds like the woodcock and pheasant, ruffed grouse draw up to 100,000 hunters afield each year in hopes of bagging these delicious birds. The grouse population tends to cycle every few years, with a knock-on effect to the populations of key predators.
There is one curious thing about the ruffed grouse. Numerous published accounts report examples of the birds befriending humans, and acting in ways completely at odds with their lives in the wild. Riding around on lawn tractors, sitting on shoulders, walking into open cabins, and so on. It seems a strange choice for a bird sometimes called the “thunder chicken.” Maybe I should have gone back to the aspen stand that day and tried to make friends with the phantom………
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