Birds – Ruffed Grouse

(‘Bonasa umbellus)


Length—16 to 18 inches.

Male and Female—Upper parts chestnut varied with grayish and yellowish brown, white, and black ; head slightly crested ; yellow line over eye ; sides of neck of male with large tufts of glossy greenish black feathers tipped with light brown, much restricted or wanting and dull in female ; long tail, which may be spread fan-like, yellowish brown or gray or rusty, beautifully and finely barred with irregular bands half buff, half black ; a broad subterminal band of black between gray bands ; throat and breast buff, the former unmarked ; underneath whitish, all barred with brown, strongly on sides, less distinctly on breast and below ; legs feathered to heel ; bill horn color.

Range—Eastern United States and southern Canada west to Minnesota, south to northern Georgia, Mississippi, and Arkansas.

Season—Permanent but roving resident.

Neither a ” partridge ” nor a ” pheasant,” it is by the former name that this superb game bird is best known to the New Englanders, and by the latter that it is commonly called in the middle and southern states; but this most typical grouse (whose

Latin name describes two striking characteristics : Bonasus, a bison, referring to the bellowing bull-like noise produced by the male; and umbellus, to the umbrella-like tufts on his neck) appears in literature and the market stalls alike as a ” partridge,” a misnomer shared by the Bob White, which strictly belongs to a race of European birds of which we have no counterparts on this side of the Atlantic. What’s in a name ? That which we call a grouse by any other name doth taste as sweet. Partial to hill country interspersed with cultivated meadows and dingles, or to mountains, rocky, inaccessible, thickly timbered, and well watered with bush-grown streams, it is only rarely, and then chiefly in autumn, that coveys leave high altitudes to feed along the edges of milder valleys and enter the swamps. The dainties preferred include crickets, grasshoppers, the larvae of caterpillars, beechnuts, chestnuts, acorns of the chestnut oak and the white oak, strawberries, blueberries, rasp-berries, elderberries, wintergreen and partridge berries with their foliage, cranberries, the bright fruit of the black alder and dog-wood, sumach berries (including the poisonous varieties, which do the grouse no injury), wild grapes, grain dropped in the stubble of harvested fields, the foliage of many plants, and the leaf buds of numerous shrubs and trees—a varied menu indeed, responsible alike for the bird’s luscious, tender flesh and its roving disposition.

The “drumming” of a male ruffed grouse, its most famous characteristic, is surely as remarkable a bird call as is heard in all nature. A thumping, rolling tattoo, like the deep, muffled beating of a drum, sonorous, crepitating, ventriloqual, admirably written down by Mr. Ernest Seton Thompson, thump-thump —thump—thump, thump; thump, thump-rup, rup, rup, r-r-rr-r-r-r-r-r, announces the presence of a cock hopeful of attracting the attention of some shy female hidden in the underbrush. Any one will do, for he is a sadly erring mate, a flagrant polygamist, in spite of much that has been said to whiten his character. On a fallen log, a wall, or broad stump that has been used as a drumming ground perhaps for many years, and well known to the hens as a trysting place, the male puffs out his feathers until, like a turkey cock, he looks twice his natural size, ruffs his neck frills, raises his crest, spreads and elevates his tail, droops his trailing wings beside him, and, with head drawn backward, struts along the surface with the most affected jerking, dandified gait. Suddenly he halts, distends his head and neck, and beats the air with his wings, slowly at first, then faster and faster, until there is simply a blur where wings should be, so marvelously fast do they go. Because they vibrate at a speed at which the human eye can scarcely follow, the method of drumming is a vexed question among the most reliable observers. Thoreau was ready to swear that he had seen the ruffed grouse strike its wings together behind its back to produce the sound, Audubon to the contrary notwithstanding. Most woodsmen will tell you either that the male strikes the log on which he is standing, or the sides of his body; but the strongest scientific judgment now favors the abundant testimony that the bird beats nothing but the air; its wings neither meet behind the back, nor do they touch its sides, nor strike against any substance whatsoever. The drumming may occur at any season, most frequently and vigorously at nesting time, of course; but besides being a love “song,” it is doubtless also a challenge to rival cocks, that fight like gamesters until blood and feathers strew the ground; or it may be simply an outlet to the bird’s inordinate vanity and vigorous animal spirits. In a lesser degree the sound is precisely the same as when the grouse begins its flight.

Quite ignored by her lover when maternal duties approach, the female scratches a slight hollow in some secluded place, usually at the foot of an old stump or log or rock, often near a stream among the underbrush; but many nests in unprotected open stretches are recorded. A few wisps of dry grass, dead leaves, pine needles, or any convenient material, line the hollow in which a full set of eggs—from ten to fifteen rich buff, dotted with different sized spots of pale chestnut brown—has been found as early as April first, a full month earlier than the regular time. Since the markings can be easily rubbed off a fresh laid egg, one sometimes hears that the grouse’s egg is plain buff. Only one brood is raised in a season, the exceptions to the rule being very rare. For nearly four weeks the hen closely confines herself, and, like the sitting Bob White, relies upon her plumage’s perfect mimicry of her surroundings to protect her from notice. The coloring of a ruffed grouse tells of a long ancestry passed under deciduous trees. Seated among last year’s leaves she looks all of a piece with the carpeting of the woods, and neither stirs a feather nor winks an eye, though you stand within two feet of her, to lead you to think otherwise. Mr. D. G. Elliot, among others, believes she hides her nest from the male as well as from all her other enemies. The fox, weasel, squirrel, hawk, owl, and above all the breech-loader, are the grouse’s deadliest foes; and a species of woodtick that inserts its triangular head beneath the skin, sometimes destroying entire broods. Bird lice, and a botworm that resembles a maggot and penetrates the flesh, like-wise prove fatal, particularly to chicks. The dust baths commonly indulged in are taken to rid themselves of vermin. Heavy rains that drench the fledgelings not infrequently kill them, too, until one wonders there are any ruffed grouse left. The precocious, downy brown balls, that run at once from the shell, are managed precisely as a domestic hen cares for her brood, even to the clucking, hen-like call that summons them beneath her wings, where they sleep until old enough to roost in trees like adults. The mother grouse when suddenly startled gives a shrill squeal, apparently the signal for the covey to scatter and hide among the leaves and tangle, while, by feigning lameness and other hackneyed devices for diverting an intruder’s attention from the chicks to herself, she remains in their neighborhood, they motionless in their hiding places, until the reassuring cluck calls the happy family together again. When the young need no further care in autumn, the males selfishly join the covey, rarely consisting of more than six or eight birds; for, unlike the pinnated grouse, this species does not pack.

” The ruffed grouse, by reason of its sudden bursts from cover, its bold, strong, swift flight, the rugged nature of its favorite cover, its proud, erect carriage, its handsome garb and its wide distribution is easily the king of American game birds,” says Mr. G. O. Shields, ” and has therefore been chosen as the emblem of the League of American Sportsmen.”

In the brisk, golden days of autumn the sportsman finds sport indeed in hunting the wily, clever grouse, ” educated ” by much persecution from an almost tame denizen of the mountain farm into a woodland recluse that constantly challenges admiration for its cunning. It will seldom lie well to a dog, but sneaks away so swiftly through the underbrush that either the dog or its master usually gets left. By flying low, then dropping to run again, the strong scent is broken.

Bob Whites, that have a power of withholding their scent by tightly compressing their feathers—a trick not known to the grouse apparently—do not escape detection any better than they. Many skilled sportsmen, armed with the most approved breech-loaders, and aided by the best trained dogs that bushwhack a region where grouse are known to be abundant, return home with light bags. No bird that flies, unless it is the Jack snipe, is so seldom hit. A tremendous whir-r-r-r of rapidly beaten wings startles the tyro out of a good aim. Unusually strong chest muscles for concentrated but limited exertion, and especially stiff wings, enable the grouse to hurl themselves into the air with a thunderous velocity; but, like all their allies, they can steal away as silently as Arabs, if necessary. Darting away directly opposite from the sportsman, a well ” educated ” bird quickly places a tree between itself and the shooter, threading a tortuous maze in and out through the woods, higher and higher, until, having cleared the tree tops, it is off to freedom. Fear, not a natural, but an acquired state of mind, has not yet blasted the peace of grouse in regions where they have never been molested; and knowing no worse enemy there than a fox, from which they are safe when roosting in a tree, and mistaking the sportsman’s dog for one, they have been sometimes credited with stupidity because by remaining on the perch they allow a man to rake the covey. But such assault and battery is happily rare. Certain hawks and owls do awful execution. Snares of silk and horsehair, poacher’s traps, and ” twitch-ups ” of young saplings bent by the farmer’s boy, do much to spoil the sport, that becomes shockingly rarer year by year. To escape pursuit a grouse will often dive into the snow; and although dense feathers cover its body and legs, it will make a similar plunge to keep warm in extremely cold weather, a solitary shiverer, unlike the Bob Whites, that bury themselves in cosy, snug family parties; but, like them, it, too, sometimes gets imprisoned by an impenetrable ice crust, and so perishes miserably.

The Canadian Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus togata), to be distinguished from the preceding by the prevailing gray, instead of chestnut, of its upper parts, its grayer tail, and its more distinctly barred’ under parts, almost as clear on the breast and underneath as on the sides, is doubtless simply a climatic variation, only the systematists seeing a sufficient difference in the two birds to justify their separation into two distinct species. Their habits and eggs are identical. Often no difference can be detected by sportsmen who bring home both species in their game bags. The spruce forests of northern New York and New England and the British provinces, westward to Northern Oregon, Idaho, and Washington to British Columbia, north to James Bay, is the Canadian ruffed grouse’s range.

The Gray Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus umbelloides), a still paler variation, in which the gray tints predominate, ranges from the Rocky Mountain region of the United States and British America north to Alaska and east to Manitoba. Considering the altitudes of from seven to ten thousand feet at which it usually lives, the lonely canons it frequents, and its rare persecution at the hands of men, it is surprisingly shy, according to Captain Bendire. Otherwise it has no trait, apparently, not already touched upon in the life history of the ruffed grouse.

The Oregon, or Red Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus sabini), the darkest, handsomest variation of the ruffed grouse anywhere found, roams over the coast mountains of Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, reaching Alaska and many of the Pacific Coast islands, and occasionally straying into Colorado, Dakota, Montana, and Idaho. Where the Canadian variety encroaches its territory, however, little or no difference in the plumage may be detected. The account of the ruffed grouse’s habits, nest, etc., should be read to avoid repetition, since the Oregon bird is simply a climatic variation of the eastern species.