Living Bird Magazine
Ruffed GrouseBonasa umbellus
- ORDER: Galliformes
- FAMILY: Phasianidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Grévol engolado (Spanish)
- Gélinotte huppée (French)
- Cool Facts
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, air rushes in beneath the wings creating a miniature vacuum that generates a deep, thumping sound wave that carries up to a quarter of a mile.