The scariest bird in the woods!
I love the Ruffed Grouse. They are fun to chase through the woods, shotgun in hand. I am an unapologetic bird hunter and the Ruffed Grouse is my favorite species to hunt. But even if I was not a bird hunter, I’d still be enamored with this bird. It is an incredibly interesting bird, with many peculiar habits and abilities. It is also the scariest bird in the woods.
How can that be? How can any bird be considered scary? Well, if you don’t know, you’ve never experienced this feathered phantom! You can be hiking along, lost in the enchantment of the beautiful scenery around you and then suddenly—BOOM!—you accidently flush a Ruffed Grouse. If you’re caught unawares this event can even trigger a fight or flight response (in some people I know it is more accurately a flight or flight response). And this bird’s launch is quite dramatic—sound and fury! Not bad for something that is the wild equivalent of a chicken.
And that is what grouse are, in a way. Grouse are members of the order Galliformes, which they share with partridges, pheasants, turkeys, quail, and chickens. The Ruffed Grouse is not the only grouse in our five-acres of paradise—we also enjoy the Dusky Grouse and the Spruce Grouse—both equally “explosive” though they live in slightly different habitat, preferring conifer groves and a bit more altitude. The Ruffed Grouse favors mixed forests and less altitude, which also makes them a bit more accessible.
The Ruffed Grouse is medium-sized for a grouse, about the size of an average chicken but cryptically colored. That is why they are hard to see in the forest. They run in either the drab reds or the drab grays, but the two color morphs seem to appear equally dark in the woods. Both the male and the female have small lazy crests, which they can raise up or down, and which often give their heads a triangular appearance. The males also sport a “ruff” around the neck, with which they use to display to the females during breeding season. A ruff is sort of like a thick fringe of extra feathers and it is not normally visible. But a male can puff it up like a lion’s mane when he is strutting his stuff. Beyond that, the males and females are virtually indistinguishable.
And this is where you might hear the birds before seeing them. Few things in the woods are as distinctive as the sound of a male Ruffed Grouse on display. I’ve also seen it and it is quite bizarre. The male bird will find a fallen log upon which to stand. He will then grasp it as best as he can with his feet and then start “drumming;” that is, he begins to loudly flap his wings, slowly at first, but with increased rapidity until he sounds like a helicopter. He can only drum for a few seconds before he runs out of steam, but the ladies find it irresistible. He will also fluff his ruff and fan his tail—whatever it takes to make a love match. It is during this time that this otherwise unremarkable bird appears quite exotic.
Here are some more interesting facts that I learned about the Ruffed Grouse from Cornell University’s website. These birds will grow little projections like combs on the sides of their toes during the winter. These projections help to convert the feet into “snowshoes” for travel across the snow (as these birds are primarily ground dwelling). During the winter the Ruffed Grouse might also dive into a soft snow bank for the night. It can then also “explode” out of this igloo just like it does in the summer. Some Ruffed Grouse populations also go through 8-11 year cycles, where their numbers dip noticeably at the peak of the cycle. This population cycle used to confuse ornithologists, who at first attributed it to hunting pressures. It was only later discovered that this large drop in Ruffed Grouse populations was related to the same cycle in Snowshoe hare populations. The correlation in populations between the Snowshoe hare and the Lynx is well known. An increase in the hare population triggers an increase in the lynx, its primary predator. Of course these population increases cannot go on forever and finally the hare population peaks and crashes, taking the lynx population down with it. And then the cycle begins anew. But after the Snowshoe hare population collapses, the lynx turn toward alternative prey—the Ruffed grouse. This increased predation by starving lynx then causes a rapid population decline in the grouse until the lynx population finds equilibrium with its prey populations.
The Ruffed Grouse ranges across North America, roughly from the northern tier of states up through Canada and into Alaska, though it is also common in the Appalachians. It is the state bird of Pennsylvania and this game bird even has its own preservation society—the Ruffed Grouse Society, also based in Pennsylvania—that looks after the well-being of this bird. The birds are omnivorous, eating a variety of foods from plants and seeds to insects and small crawling critters. Like many other widespread species of birds, this flexibility in diet might explain this bird’s success as a species.
The Ruffed Grouse: a fine pursuit for both hunter and birder. And for such a shy, retiring species its encounter in the woods can be startling. So don’t be caught unawares, you might have a heart attack. This can be one dangerous bird! Happy birding!