By Ben Young
Nothing says spring like the first flight of northbound Canada Geese. And to me, no bird is more closely aligned with autumn than the Ruffed Grouse.
Ruffed Grouse are part of the gallinaceous family of birds. That’s fancy-talk meaning they are similar to chickens. Taxonomists lump them with other grouse, partridge, pheasants, ptarmigan and the like.
In Montana, grouse are split between those of the prairie and those of the forest. Sage and Sharptail Grouse are prairie birds. Ruffed Grouse are forest grouse, midsize between the diminutive Spruce Grouse and the husky Dusky (formerly Blue) Grouse.
Ruffed Grouse are the most widespread of forest grouse. They thrive from New England, up and down Appalachia, across Canada and the upper Midwest through the Pacific Northwest. They live as far north as Alaska and as far south as northern California and northern Georgia.
Ruffed Grouse may be encountered in the Flathead Valley anywhere there are trees, although the closer you get to town, the fewer you will find. They are ground-nesters, vulnerable to suburban menaces such as raccoons, skunks and housecats.
Ruffed Grouse look like little brown or grey chickens, with a dapper feather crest on their heads. They have a fan-like tail with a dark band across its breadth. (You can tell a female ruffie from a male by the tail band; the male band is solid; the female’s has a break in the center). Ruffies have a black ruff of feathers on their neck, which gives them their Latin name, Bonasa umbellus. The ruff reminded some ornithologist of an umbrella.
Grouse eat like I type: they hunt and peck. They eat small insects like ants and grasshoppers, lush forbs and low plants like clover. In the fall, they switch to berries and rosehips, which they may depend upon all winter long.
Ruffed Grouse do well in recently disturbed forests, such as logged-over second growth, with alder, snowberry and similar shrubbery, providing they have adequate cover for enduring storms. They are often associated with aspen, particularly east of the Continental Divide.
Ruffed Grouse are hearty year-round residents. In winter they puff up in their down and sit still, high enough in the naked hawthorns to sleep out of reach of the coyotes. Interestingly, ruffies grow extra scales on the sides of their toes every winter. These act as snowshoes, but fall off when the snow melts. On particularly cold, snowy days, they bury themselves entirely in the insulating powder.
Ruffed Grouse are tasty and just about everything with sharp teeth or talons would like to eat them. Myself included. Still, predation and hunting pressure are thought to have little effect on their overall numbers. Grouse populations swing up and down following hard winters that kill the adults and wet cold springs that kill the chicks. When logged or burned-over forests grow mature, there is less and less grouse habitat and fewer grouse.
Ruffed Grouse have a delightful and unique manner of attracting mates. They are drab and live in the woods, making flashy colors or elaborate displays less than advantageous. Instead, male grouse “drum.”
Specifically, grouse find a log in their territory. They perch atop it, and cup their wings and rapidly pound them into their chests. Bum-bum-bump. The resonant sound is said to resemble a Model T engine starting up.
The drumming of a grouse was the first bird sound I learned to identify as a child. Alas, one of those sad little tragedies of life is that now my hearing is too poor to hear it in the woods. Some balmy spring mornings, when I’m lonely for the sound, I listen to the recordings at the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory website.
But autumn is the season I most associate with Ruffed Grouse, when the larch needles turn gold. In those glorious fall evenings before big game season, I love to ramble the old logging roads of the Salish Range with a dog and a shotgun. The deer are fat and sleek and the sky its bluest blue and life seems unbearably sweet and too damned short. Sometimes I even bag a grouse.