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Ruffed Grouse

Bonasa umbellus ORDER: GALLIFORMES FAMILY: PHASIANIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The dappled, grayish or reddish Ruffed Grouse is hard to see, but its “drumming on air” display is a fixture of many spring forests. It can come as a surprise to learn this distant sound, like an engine trying to start, comes from a bird at all. This plump grouse has a cocky crest and a tail marked by a broad, dark band near the tip. Displaying males expose a rich black ruff of neck feathers, giving them their name.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
15.7–19.7 in
40–50 cm
Wingspan
19.7–25.2 in
50–64 cm
Weight
15.9–26.5 oz
450–750 g
Relative Size
About the size of an American Crow; distinctly smaller than a Wild Turkey.
Other Names
  • Gélinotte huppée (French)
  • (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The male Ruffed Grouse’s signature drumming display doesn’t involve drumming on anything but air. As the bird quickly rotates its wings forward and backward. The air that rushes into the temporary vacuum beneath the wings creates a miniature vacuum, generating a deep, thumping sound wave that carries up to a quarter of a mile.
  • The early conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote of the Ruffed Grouse, “The autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a Ruffed Grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.”
  • Ruffed Grouse’s popularity as a game bird led to some of North America’s earliest game management efforts: New York had a closed season (no hunting in part of the year) on Ruffed Grouse starting in 1708.
  • Ruffed Grouse can digest bitter, often toxic plants that many birds can’t handle. Levels of defensive plant compounds in buds of quaking aspen, a major winter-time food source for Ruffed Grouse, reflect the cyclic rise and fall of grouse populations: they’re lowest when grouse densities are increasing, and highest when grouse densities decline.
  • Ruffed Grouse can consume and digest large volumes of fibrous vegetation thanks to extra-long, paired pouches at the junction of the small and large intestines. In the northern part of their range, Ruffed Grouse depend on snow as a wintertime roost, burying themselves at night in soft drifts that provide insulating cover. Birds in the south seek out dense stands of conifers that offer protection from chilling winds.
  • The toes of Ruffed Grouse grow projections off their sides in winter, making them look like combs. The projections are believed to act as snowshoes to help the grouse walk across snow.
  • In much of their range, Ruffed Grouse populations go through 8-to-11-year cycles of increasing and decreasing numbers. Their cycles can be attributed to the snowshoe hare cycle. When hare populations are high, predator populations increase too. When the hare numbers go down, the predators must find alternate prey and turn to grouse, decreasing their numbers.
  • Ruffed Grouse nests are occasionally parasitized by Ring-necked Pheasants or Wild Turkeys that lay eggs in the nests.

Habitat


Forest

Mixed-age groves of aspen, spruce, and birch make ideal habitat for Ruffed Grouse in the northern part of their range. Farther south, grouse inhabit deciduous forests of oaks, hickories, and pines, while in the Pacific Northwest you can find them in riparian habitats. Because young stands of trees are important for both cover and food, grouse populations are higher in areas where logging, burning, and other disturbance create early-successional forests. Populations of Ruffed Grouse are lower in mature forests and in small patches of woods surrounded by agricultural lands.

Food


Omnivore

Ruffed Grouse feed almost exclusively on vegetation, including leaves, buds, and fruits of ferns, shrubs, and woody plants. In fall, soft fruits and acorns become an important part of the diet. Ruffed Grouse’s ability to digest foods high in cellulose make it possible for them to survive harsh winter conditions in the northern part of their range, where they feed on buds and twigs of aspen, birch, and willow. In winter, birds in the south forage on leaves and fruit of greenbrier, mountain laurel, Christmas fern, and other green plants. Although insects and other invertebrates make up only a small part of the adult grouse’s diet, chicks 2 to 4 weeks old depend on this protein-rich prey.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
9–14 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1.5–1.6 in
3.78–4.14 cm
Egg Width
1.1–1.2 in
2.9–3 cm
Incubation Period
23–24 days
Nestling Period
1 days
Egg Description
Eggs are milky to cinnamon buff sometimes spotted with reddish or brown.
Condition at Hatching
Precocial; chicks hatch covered in sandy to brown down with a triangular patch of black feathers around the ears. Chicks can walk and feed themselves within 24 hours of hatching.
Nest Description

The Ruffed Grouse’s nest is a simple, hollowed-out depression in leaves on the forest floor, reaching up to 6 inches across and 3 inches deep. Females build the bowl-shaped nest and typically line the bowl with vegetation that they pluck from the edge of the nest site.

Nest Placement

Ground

After mating, female Ruffed Grouse choose a nest site at the base of a tree, stump, or rock in areas with sparse ground cover that give a clear view of predators. Nests may also be built in brush piles, or in the bases of partially open, hollowed-out stumps.

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Thanks to their cryptic coloration and slow, deliberate movements, Ruffed Grouse can be difficult to spot as they forage on the forest floor or walk along the low branches of trees and shrubs to pluck berries and buds. The grouse’s habit of burying itself in soft snow to roost can lead to surprising encounters for snowshoers or skiers when the birds erupt from beneath the surface. When displaying for females or defending territory, the male grouse stands atop a log, rock, or low dirt mound with crest, ruff and tail erect, puffing up to nearly double its normal size and beating its wings to create a rapid-fire drumming sound. A drumming male will often trigger a response in a nearby male defending its own territory. Following the elaborate display, mating lasts only a few seconds—females then go on their way to build a nest at the base of a tree or rock and raise the young on their own. Although Ruffed Grouse are normally solitary, small groups of unrelated birds may form in fall or winter to take advantage of productive feeding spots.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Ruffed Grouse are fairly common and widespread, but their populations have dropped substantially in recent decades, particularly in Virginia and the Northeast, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 18 million, with 14 percent living in the U.S. and 86 percent in Canada. They score a 10 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 watch list—though they are listed as a Common Bird in Steep Decline. The grouse’s immense popularity as a game bird has led to controls on season length, bag limits, and area closures, as well as to extensive efforts to improve habitat through management practices that encourage early successional forest. The Ruffed Grouse Society partners with government agencies in programs to expand grouse habitat through land purchases and targeted management. Habitat for Ruffed Grouse has declined where forests have matured due to fire control and limits on logging. Pesticide use can affect insect populations that chicks rely on.

Credits

Range Map Help

Ruffed Grouse Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Nonmigratory (resident), though moves short distances seasonally to seek out food sources and protected roosting sites.

Find This Bird

Seeing the secretive Ruffed Grouse can be quite difficult—although it can be easy to hear them when they are drumming. To track one down, note the locations where you hear drumming males—this is generally most frequent very early in the morning. Otherwise, you may encounter foraging birds simply by walking slowly and quietly through appropriate forest, or while driving along narrow forested roads. In winter, watch for Ruffed Grouse feeding on deciduous-tree buds in bare treetops along a road.