Jeff Green | Mar 12, 2009
Back to HomeOutdoors in the Land O'lakes - March 12, 2009 Ruffed GrouseBy Steve Blight
It seems like every time I am out in the bush, I manage to scare up one or two Ruffed Grouse. More often than not, they explode up from the ground in front of me in a noisy brown flurry, startling me to the point where I have to sit down until my heart stops pounding. Sometimes I wonder how many heart attacks have been caused by this medium-sized chicken-like bird.
The Ruffed Grouse is a common, non-migratory resident of our area. Also known as a partridge, it’s a popular game bird that is found in forested areas across Canada and in northern and mountainous areas of the United States. It seems to prefer deciduous forests or coniferous forests with at least a deciduous component. Forest stands with a high proportion of poplar appear to be its habitat of choice. Grouse have a wide-ranging diet, feeding on leaves, berries, acorns, flower buds, insects and other invertebrates. In winter and spring, the buds of aspen trees are a staple food.
Grouse are about 17 inches (45 cm) high and weigh about 1 pound (0.6 kg). The male is slightly larger than the female, and a little more distinctly patterned. The grouse has a small crest on its head and cryptic colouring in grey and brown, with mottled dark and light spots. In winter, the toes of the Ruffed Grouse grow projections which are believed to act as snowshoes to help the grouse walk across snow.
Females do all the child-rearing work in the grouse family. After mating, that’s it for the male – he has nothing more to do with the business of reproduction. The females lay on average about 11 buff-coloured, slightly speckled eggs in a bowl-shaped nest on the forest floor, often near a rock, stump or tree. Like baby chickens, Ruffed Grouse chicks leave the nest very shortly after hatching and feed themselves, rarely venturing far from the female. They can generally fly when less than two weeks old.
Grouse have several interesting behaviours. Beginning in March, the territorial male Ruffed Grouse advertises himself in spring with a distinctive, loud drumming sound. The bird stands on a raised perch in a secluded spot, often a downed log, and beats his wings in the air in an accelerating series of muffled thumps. While normally heard around dawn, it is often given at other times of the day, even through the night.
In winter, the Ruffed Grouse may dive into soft snow to spend the night, and falling snow can hide the evidence of its entry. A grouse bursting at one's feet from snow-covered ground can be especially startling – something I have experienced first hand.
Populations of this sedentary bird seem to be holding their own in Ontario, although some declines have been noted in the agricultural areas of deep southern Ontario. In portions of its Ontario range, Ruffed Grouse populations seem to go through 2 – 6 year cycles of increasing and decreasing numbers. Their cycles seem to be related to the snowshoe hare cycle. When hare populations are high, predator populations increase as well. When the hare numbers inevitably go down, the predators must find alternate prey and often turn to grouse, decreasing their numbers.
For many early settlers of North America, the Ruffed Grouse was an important part of their diet, especially in winter. For example in parts of Quebec, the original tourtière pie consisted of a slow-cooked mixture of moose or caribou meat, snowshoe hare and Ruffed Grouse. This would have been a rather gamey dish, but very welcome on a cold Christmas Eve.