Birds – The Ruffed Grouse

(Bonasa umbellus) is one of the best known and most highly prized of American game birds, and the single polymorphous species, which has been separated into four comparatively slight color forms, ranges over practically the whole of the wooded portions of North America, except at the far south. The Ruffed Grouse, known mainly in the Northern States as the Partridge, while in the South it is commonly called the Pheasant, prefers undulating and hilly country, especially where it is well wooded and covered with ” considerable undergrowth, interspersed here and there with cultivated fields and meadow lands.” Naturally it is a rather tame and unsuspicious bird, and when suitably protected is not an uncommon visitor to the vicinity of human habitations, especially during winter, but the ceaseless persecution that is waged against it has perforce made it exceedingly shy and wary. Its flight, particularly as it launches forth, is sudden and noisy, but when well under way it flies with great strength and swiftness. On the approach of man it either seeks safety in rapid running, disappearing like a flash among the tangled weeds and underbrush which it frequents, or crouches motionless on the ground, with which its plumage so blends as to make it invisible ; and many a would-be sportsman, threading his way noiselessly through the forest, has been so startled by the sudden rushing forms springing from under his feet as to forget the object of his coming until too late. In spite of the constant warfare of man, and the aggression of its wild enemies, the foxes, weasels, minks, and the voracious members of its own class, it manages to pretty well hold its own. An unusually severe winter or a particularly wet, cold spring may reduce the numbers, but a succeeding favorable season usually restores the equilibrium. They are generally resident and nesting wherever found, usually moving about but little. In the southern portions of its range, however, it frequents mostly the higher mountain slopes, but in fall or early winter often seeks the lower levels. The members of a covey, if undisturbed, usually keep together for some time after they are full grown, and have a low, sharp call note that can be heard for only a short distance. But one of the strongest characteristics of the Ruffed Grouse is the “drumming” of the male, a sound familiar to every woodland lover within its range.

“This loud tattoo,” says Thompson, “begins with the increased thump of a big drum, then gradually changes and dies away in the rumble of the kettle-drum. It may be briefly represented thus : Thump — thump — thump — thump, thump; thump, thump-rup rup rup rup r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r.” The manner in which the sound is produced has been speculated upon, but it is now definitely settled that it is by the rapid beating of the wings toward the body, and not against a log as commonly supposed. The actual procedure has been quite frequently described, but I venture to quote from Mr. W. C. Kendall, who observed one drumming in northern Maine in the fall of 1901. He says : ” A bird was heard drumming. At first it was difficult to locate the source of the sound. He was crouching or sitting crosswise of an old log, his head drawn down as if asleep.

When about to drum, he would straighten up without really standing up, much as a duck flapping his wings while sitting on the water. Beginning with slow, short, interrupted strokes he would beat against his sides, or the air, faster and faster, finally, still fast but with less force, causing the sound to die out in a sort of whirr, when he would resume his former position. The drumming occurred at intervals of six to ten minutes. He did not ` strut up and down the log,’ nor did he strike the log with his wings; he did not even stand up. It seemed to me that the sound was caused by the air being forced between the wings and the body by the short, quick strokes.” The drumming is mostly in the spring, its object being to attract the female, but occasionally throughout the summer and fall the long roll may be heard in the forest. By some the Ruffed Grouse is considered to be polygamous, but this is doubted by Bendire and other equally good authorities, and all that can be said at present is that it may be, but the case is not proven. The nest, a mere depression in the ground, is placed in a great variety of situations, such as alongside a stump, fallen tree, or rock, or among tangled vegetation, in a brush pile, or occasionally in a more open and unexpected place. The nest is scantily lined with a few leaves, grasses, or pine needles, and the complement of eggs varies from eight to fourteen, rarely more. In color they are pale ochraceous-buff, about half of them being more or less minutely spotted. When flushed from the nest, the female is often successful in decoying the intruder to a distance by feigning lameness or a broken wing, so that a fox, for example, may be led on, thinking his prey is just within his grasp, until he is a_ quarter of a mile or more from the nest, when the bird takes wing and is gone like a flash. The young run about within a few hours after they are hatched, and can fly for short distances at the end of a week. They are fed at first mainly on insects, but soon berries, fruits, and grain are added, and this varied list represents their food until winter, when they subsist largely on catkins, buds, and leaves. Often when the ground is covered with snow the birds drop into a soft bank and burrow under for a short distance, where they spend the night in comparative warmth, though the freezing of the snow into a crust above them may sometimes turn the shelter into a tomb.