Klemek Outdoors: Ol' Ruff - Ruffed Grouse

Submitted by Blane Klemek

While duck hunting in a beaver pond with a couple of friends recently, we heard the drumming sound of a nearby ruffed grouse. One of the hunters commented, “I didn’t know grouse drummed in the fall.” The wildlife biologist in me launched into a long drawn out explanation of why it’s common that male ruffed grouse drum during the autumn months because of the photoperiod and hormonal change and . . .

And yes, his eyes glazed over.

So perhaps I should have instead quoted Ernest Thompson Seton’s lines about “Redruff the Ruffed Grouse” from his book, Wild Animals I Have Known, and recited for my friend:

“Why does a happy boy holla? Why does a lonesome youth sigh? They don’t know anymore than Redruff knew why every day now he mounted some dead log and thumped and thundered to the woods; then strutted and admired his gorgeous blazing ruffs as they flashed their jewels in the sunlight, and then thundered out again”.

But then again maybe that wouldn’t have been a good approach either.

Few Minnesota resident birds are more adapted and symbolic to our state’s abundant forest habitats than are ruffed grouse. A plump and cryptic bird, the ruffed grouse’s booming flight, the males’ loud springtime drumming ritual, their beautiful plumage, and the joy of hunting this bird as a worthy and challenging quarry, puts “Ol’ Ruff” alone on the pinnacle of special wild birds.

Also sometimes called “partridge”, the ruffed grouse is possibly best known for the unique drumming behavior by only the males of the species during the spring breeding season, and, to a lesser extent, during autumn.

Interestingly, other species of grouse, such as prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse, spruce grouse, dusky grouse, and sage grouse, performs and produces distinctive breeding displays and sounds and dances, too, but none produces the incredible “drumming” sound and behavior as do ruffed grouse.

With drumming generally beginning in late March and peaking in April to May here in northern Minnesota, during, as Seton described as the “Pussywillow Moon”, the male ruffed grouse generates the incredibly loud and thumping sounds by beating his wings against the air while propping himself upright with his tail.

He chooses a secluded spot in dense thickets, normally on top of a log or stump, and, while standing erect and using his fanned-out tail feathers for support, extends his wings and beats them hard against the air, slowly and deliberately at first, and culminating with a rapid series of wing-beats followed by a four to five-minute resting period.

Drumming has a purpose of course. The sound serves as both a territorial call to other males to stay away and as an advertisement for nearby female grouse. You might say the male is trying to “drum up” a mate.

Ruffed grouse spend their entire lives in a relatively small area where suitable habitat exists in as little as 40 acres wherever just the right component of quaking aspen of all growth stages occur. Young aspen saplings provide the dense shelter that female grouse prefer for nesting and raising their broods of chicks, while the buds from mature aspen trees provides essential food for the grouses’ survival during the wintertime.

Aspen forests, along with fruit and nut-bearing deciduous trees and shrubs and herbaceous plants that are associated with these habitats, provide additional food and shelter, too. Such trees and shrubs as paper birch, oak, hazel, alder, serviceberry, dogwood, and other mast producing plants, are critically important for grouse survival throughout the year.

Ruffed grouse are very distinguished wild birds of the woods. From the species’ peculiar habit of diving into snow to escape the wind and cold of severe winter weather, to their thunderous flushes from thick cover, and to the males’ drumming on top of their favorite perch; indeed, the ruffed grouse is a truly remarkable bird to observe and listen to as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek