Common Name: Ruffed Grouse – There is no confirmed etymology to the word grouse, though it has been suggested that it derives from greoche or griais, the French word for speckled bird (speckled gray in some sources); over time this term was applied to the indigenous black grouse of Scotland and Wales and Anglicized from greoche to grouse. Ruffed refers to the long, shiny plumage around the neck extended by the male in a prominent ruff to attract females.
Scientific Name: Bonasa umbellus – The generic name is most commonly said to derive from the Latin bonasus, the European bison (Bison bonasus), as a metaphor for the bovine sound that a male ruffed grouse makes when it is drumming (explained below). A more compelling etymology is the Latin bonus which means ‘good’ and assum which means ‘roasted’ the combination asserting the culinary qualities of the grouse as a ‘good roasted’ game bird. The species name is from the Latin word for parasol, umbella, and again refers to the umbrella-like appearance of the epideictic neck ruff of the male.
Potpourri: Grouse are chicken-like terrestrial birds that are characterized by brown, gray and sometimes ferruginous plumage that is mottled as a matter of sylvan camouflage and covers the entire body including the legs. There are twenty five species of grouse worldwide; ten are found in North America. Grouse are members of the order Galliformes, ‘chicken-shaped’ in Latin which also includes turkeys, pheasants, quails and chickens. All of the Gallinaceous birds are heavy-bodied and ground-dwelling with short, rounded wings that are suited for short, high-speed bursts, traits which have made them the quintessential game birds. Ruffed grouse are frequently mistakenly called pheasants or partridges (members of the Pheasant family).
The most noticeable characteristic of the ruffed grouse is its reaction to being encroached upon in the woods, which varies according to whether a brood of chicks is involved or not. The surprised grouse will burst from its hiding place with a stentorian noise out of proportion to its size and move with alacrity in a low arch over a distance of a few hundred yards, plunging into a likely arbor to take advantage of its camouflage coloration. It does not make this noise when rising on its own, as noted by John James Audubon in Birds of America “I …. have frequently seen a grouse rise on wing from within a few yards of the spot in which I lay unobserved by them, as gently and softly as any other bird, and without producing any whirring sound.” One must therefore conclude that the “whirring” noise is an evolved survival tactic; the sudden outburst to disorient and distract the would- be predator as its quarry, the defenseless grouse, disappears on a clandestine tangent to a new location. If a female grouse is encountered on its nest, escape is instinctively suppressed in favor of species survival. Rather than flee, she will feign injury and trail a simulated broken wing to lead a predator away from the brood, the chicks instinctively remaining silent and steadfastly affixed to the ground, where they are rarely discovered.
Drumming is the defining characteristic of the male ruffed grouse, as iconic a woodland sound as the beckoning call of the whip-poor-will or the flute-like phrases of the wood thrush. Drumming consists of beating the wings with great vigor so as to create a vacuum that is collapsed by the surrounding air with a resonant thunder-like clap, the plangent dissonance audible at a radius of two hundred yards. As is the case with many of the more peculiar avian behaviors, sexuality is the motivation for this demonstration of masculinity. A young male grouse will stake out a territory distant enough from its birthplace to establish sovereignty and pick a centrally located site as his datum. This is the “drumming log,” either an actual log or a rock about a foot off the ground, readily discerned by the amount of excrement and molted feathers that have collected there over time. The male grouse drums to establish its territory throughout the year, with an increased periodicity and intensity in the spring mating season to attract a hen or hens. The degree to which this territoriality is manifest is evident in Audubon’s testimonial in Birds of America that he imitated the drumming sound by beating an inflated bullock’s bladder with a stick until “the male grouse, inflamed with jealousy, has flown directly toward me, when, being prepared, I have easily shot it.”
Assuming the drumming of the cock grouse is successful and a duly impressed hen grouse is attracted, consummation takes only a few minutes; the cock has nothing more to do with the hen or the resultant brood. The hen generally departs directly thereafter to find an appropriate nesting site, usually a slight depression in dead leaves at the base of a tree with relatively unobstructed vision to guard against predation. The hen lays one egg about every other day so that it takes about two weeks to deposit the 8 to 14 eggs of the typical clutch and another three weeks of incubation for them to hatch; the nest must therefore provide protection for over a month. Gallinaceous chicks are precocial, they are ready to leave the nest and begin feeding themselves as soon as they are dry enough after hatching. Ruffed grouse chicks expand their home radius to hundreds of meters in three days and begin to fly at five days at which point they are said to resemble somewhat large, fuzzy bumble bees. Growth, however is rapid, and at about 17 weeks they are fully grown and they set off on their own; the cocks leave first to locate a drumming log about 2 miles away from the home nest and the hens leave about two weeks later and typically move at least 15 miles away.
The survival tactics and skills of the ruffed grouse have evolved out of necessity as they are near the bottom of the food chain in the uncompromising ferocity of their forest habitat. They are relentlessly preyed on by the raptors in general and by the red-tailed hawk and the horned owl in particular, the former, according to Audobon “watches their motions from the tops of trees and falls upon them with the swiftness of thought.” And it is no safer on the ground, as weasels, raccoons, foxes, opossums and skunks are all partial to either temporarily unguarded grouse eggs or to careless adults. The end result is that grouse have a short, hard life; only fifty percent of a brood hatched in June will survive to August and only fifty percent of those that make it to August will survive the winter. Grouse are decimated by the combination of predation and exposure; only one in ten will survive a full year. It has been noted that the ruffed grouse population has historically fluctuated over an approximate 10-year cycle that varies according to region. Although there is no syllogistic explanation for the phenomenon, it is likely attributable to similar fluctuations in the raptor population modulated by changes in annual weather patterns, notably the amount of winter snow.
The hostile predatory environment of the relatively defenseless and plump grouse defines their prime habitat as those areas that are covered with snow of at least a foot over the full winter range of December through March and those areas that have enough undergrowth in the summer to afford a palladium. Ruffed grouse spend the better part of the winter burrowed into the snow, emerging only occasionally for a short time to eat, their primary food being the dormant catkins of various deciduous trees, notably birches, cherries, and most especially when available, aspens. The grouse use the snow much like the underbrush is used in summer, diving into it with Gadarene zeal, making a hole that can be several yards in length in their escape from a predator. Their toes grow comb-like projections on either side during the winter, a snowshoe-like adaptation thought to contribute to winter mobility.
The ruffed grouse is considered by many to be the “king of the gamebirds,” as it is affords a real challenge to the true hunter, one for whom the experience of the hunt far surpasses the savor of the kill. The recent decline in grouse numbers attributed to habitat loss in some areas has been a matter of some concern for those for whom the grouse hunt is an Elysian pleasure. The Appalachian Cooperative Grouse Research Project was initiated in 1996 to evaluate the impact of hunting on grouse populations. Based on data from 3,118 birds captured at 12 sites over 8 years, hunting was found to result in only 12 percent of adult mortality, whereas avian predation accounted for 44 percent and mammalian predation accounted for 26 percent. It was concluded that increases in grouse populations could best be achieved by adopting timber harvest techniques that would produce the diversity of forests interspersed with the open spaces of underbrush that afford a safe habitat for the ruffed grouse.