Ruffed Grouse

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Ruffed Grouse
Bonasa umbellus

    Class: Aves
    Order: Galliformes
    Family: Phasianidae

Ruffed Grouse look rather like chickens, with short, rounded wings and a prominent 5-7 inch tail. Length: 12 - 19 inches, Weigh about 1 1/2 pounds, wingspan 19-25 inches. Adults: Medium to large chicken-like bird, Thick bodied, Tail moderately long and rounded, Rounded wings in flight, Short crest on head, Cryptic coloring of gray and brown mottled with dark and light spots.

Male: Large neck ruff, Large crest, Rump feathers with two or more whitish dots.

Female: Crest and tail shorter, Ruff smaller, sometimes not apparent, Rump feathers with one rounded or oval dot, Dark tail band usually broken or blotchy.

Immature: Juvenile looks like female, but does not have black band on tail, Immature looks similar to adult.

Color phases range from gray to chestnut. A grouse's body feathers are mottled brown with light underparts. The "ruff" feathers on each side of the neck are usually an iridescent black, but occasionally they're chestnut-colored. These ruff feathers are displayed as a large collar about the neck by males during drumming, courtship, or as a sign of dominance or aggression. The feathers on top of the head are also erected into a small crest when the bird is alerted by an intruder. In winter, ruffed grouse have comb-like fringes on their toes that, like snowshoes, allow for easy travel on snow.

Ruffed Grouse have two distinct morphs, grey and brown. In the grey morph, the head, neck and back are grey-brown; the breast is light with barring. There is much white on the underside and flanks, and overall the birds have a variegated appearance; the throat is often distinctly lighter. The tail is essentially the same brownish grey, with regular barring and a broad black band near the end ("subterminal"). Brown-morph birds have tails of the same color and pattern, but the rest of the plumage is much browner, giving the appearance of a more uniform bird with less light plumage below and a conspicuously grey tail. There are all sorts of intergrades between the most typical morphs; warmer and more humid conditions favor browner birds in general.

The ruffs are on the sides of the neck in both genders. They also have a crest on top of their head, which sometimes lies flat. Both sexes are similarly marked and sized, making them difficult to tell apart, even in hand. The female often has a broken subterminal tail band, while males often have unbroken tail bands. Another fairly accurate sign is that rump feathers with a single white dot indicate a female; rump feathers with more than one white dot indicate a male.

Ruffed Grouse are not partridge and are sometimes called a "grinch" in Kentucky and Ohio. The French call them Gélinotte huppée.

Habitat and Range

Ruffed grouse are found in thick brush, young to middle-aged aspen, poplar/birch, second growth pine, early succession mixed deciduous forests, with small clearings, alder lowlands and patches of gray dogwood are especially attractive to ruffed grouse in summer and fall. During winter, ruffed grouse spend nearly all of their time in snow burrows to stay warm and avoid predators. A ruffed grouse lives most of its life within just a few acres. Thick brush, with small clearing and availibity of feed, is what most likley attracts the grouse to the deertrail cams in winter, in summer it is not seen as often, but with it's plumage could be on the trail, and hardly noticed.

Ruffed grouse are loners. Unlike most other game bird species, which form coveys or flocks, ruffed grouse spend most of their adult life alone, except during the mating season.

Ruffed grouse are well adapted for surviving severe winters. They have sturdy down-curved beaks for eating buds and twigs of shrubs and trees a staple in winter. They also have stout legs for walking or running and in winter their feet grow comb-like rows of bristled projections. These bristles act like snowshoes, enabling grouse to walk easily on soft snow.

Following feeding in early morning and evening, birds spend most of the day roosting to conserve energy. If the snow condition is right, seven or more inches of fluffy snow, grouse prefer to "snow roost" to cope with the extremes of cold winter weather. During snow roosting, grouse either burrow below the surface or fly directly into a soft snow bank to spend the day or night. Falling snow can hide the evidence of its entry. A grouse bursting at one's feet from flat snow covered ground can be quite startling. Temperatures beneath this blanket of snow may be 20-30 degrees warmer than the air.

Diet

Ruffed grouse favor the buds, twigs, leaves, fruits, berries, seeds, catkins, acorns, and insects. They also eat rose hips and the green leaves of clover, strawberries and some ferns. Insects are the primary food of ruffed grouse chicks. They spend much of their time foraging on the ground and sometimes in trees.

Don L. Johnson noted that, "More than any other characteristic, it is the ruffed grouse's ability to thrive on a wide range of foods that has allowed it to adapt to such a wide and varied range of habitat on this continent. A complete menu of grouse fare might itself fill a book. One grouse crop yielded a live salamander in a salad of watercress. Another contained a small snake."

So grouse eat all kinds of food. In the spring, it's mostly buds and newly sprouted leaves of aspens, birches, cherries and apple trees. As they become available, fruits (strawberry, blueberry, gooseberry, bunchberry, and raspberry), seeds, and plant parts become more important. In the fall, they munch on other berries (dogwoods, viburnums), sumac, grapes, and acorns. During the winter, the grouse's favorite food is aspen buds, but it also eats catkins and/or buds of hazelnut, willow, beech, birch, maple, and some berry bushes.

Behavior

Ruffed grouse will flush/explode/fly upward from underfoot, in a flurry of wings the loud sound this makes startles even experienced outdoor hunters, hikers, and even dogs! Many times the bird is gone so quickly one does not even realize they have encountered a Ruffed Grouse. The grouse's camouflaged coloration and slow, deliberate walk make it almost virtually invisible. On Deer Trail the grouse ventures out occasionally in the daylight hours, but usually just before dark. In the spring and fall you will need a sharp eye to spot it. In the winter, it is much easier to see as it moves across the snow, and gets closer to the cams.

This woodland bird is noted for its muffled drumming sounds during the sring mating season. This woodland drummer is a male ruffed grouse. The bird spreads its tail then begins a series of strong wing strokes. As the wings compress the air, they create a vacuum to produce a thumping noise which sounds like a distant motor. It starts out slowly, but rapidly increases to a drum roll which can be heard for ¼ mile or more. Males may sometimes drum on or the tail near a log, or stand on roots and boulders. Usually in thick brush. You may also hear a grouse drumming in summer and fall if he's defending his territory. It's his way of letting another grouse know that this spot is already occupied.

Click for Grouse Drum

Reproduction

Minnesota is the top Ruffed Grouse producing state in the USA. The mating season in Minnesota is generally May to June, after the spring thaw and the ground begins to warm. The male performs the mating ritual of the beating drum from April to May, it's wings in hopes of attracting a female grouse and to advertise his whereabouts to females in the area. Once a female arrives, the male begins "strutting." He walks forward slowly with tail erect and fanned. This is followed by flaring of the ruffs on the neck (hence the name Ruffed Grouse), hissing, head-shaking, and finally, a run forward with the wings dragging. It's quite a display!

The male may mate with more than one female, and females may visit several males. After copulation, the male has nothing more to do with reproduction and the female raises the young alone.

The female ruffed grouse usually builds a nest on the ground in dense forest and brush at the base of a stump, bolder or tree in a shallow bowl like depression lined with dead leaves and vegetation. The hen lays 2 eggs about every three days, totaling from 10 to 14 eggs. The eggs are milky to cinnamon-buff, usually plain, but may have reddish spots. Ruffed Grouse nests occasionally are parasitized by Ring-necked Pheasants or Wild Turkeys that lay eggs in the nests.

The chicks hatch in 23 days. Upon hatching they are covered in brownish down and their eyes are open. They leave the nest within 24 hours and feed themselves immediately. At this time the chicks can walk, hop, and run. After a week, they can fly short distances. Broods are quite mobile. They travel with the hen in search of food. The first 4-5 weeks of life it's mostly insects. After that, leaves and fruits make up the summer diet. In September (chick are fully grown in 16 weeks) the brood breaks up and the young grouse head out to new areas.

Population and Management

Many animals hunt ruffed grouse, including birds of prey such as goshawk, red tail, great horned owl, and various mammals such as fox, fisher, bobcat, house cats & dogs.

Ruffed grouse is a favorite of bird-watchers and nature photographers. Ruffed grouse is the most popular of Minnesota's upland game birds. Populations rise and fall at intervals of about 10 years. Many other species of wildlife such as snowshoe hares also cycle at 10-year intervals. The causes of these cycles are unknown. In Minnesota, the annual hunter harvest varies from 250,000 to more than one million ruffed grouse. Hunting does not affect ruffed grouse populations either at the top or bottom of their population cycles. This cycle which has puzzled scientists is sometimes referred to as the "grouse cycle." One theory is that When hare populations are high, predator populations increase too. When the hare numbers go down, the predators must find alternate prey and turn to grouse, decreasing their numbers.

Hunting is often done with shotguns. Dogs may also be used. Hunting of the ruffed grouse is usually very rigorous. This is because the grouse spends most of its time in thick brush, poplar stands, and second growth pines, the thick brush is hard to navigate let alone get the gun in position to shoot. It is also very hard to detect a foraging grouse bobbing about in the thicket. Because their plumage hides them so well in a variety of conditions. When snow is present they are easier to see. Like other forest creatures, the ruffed grouse will maintain trails through the underbrush and pines. These can often be found by looking for feathers on the ground and twigs at the edges of its trail. Hunting of the ruffed grouse requires a good ear and lots of stamina as you will be constantly walking and listening for them in the leaves. Many a hunt has been spoilt when the hunter is startled as a grouse flushes and does not have time to aim and shoot.
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