I was out walking along a trail in the woods after a recent snow looking for animal tracks. Tracking is a great way to find out who exactly is living in your neighborhood; all that wildlife we might never see whose presence we only know through a small pile of scat or a track that winds through the trees. In this case, marching up from the stream and off into the woods were the tracks of a ruffed grouse. I say marching because that is how I imagine this fierce little bird as it resolutely paces (ruffed grouse prefer walking to flying) through the woods in search of its favorite winter meal - quaking aspen buds.
Ruffed grouse are small (even by grouse standards) - the size of a small chicken, with a very distinctive triangular crest on their heads. They are well camouflaged - their assortment of brown and reddish-brown and grayish-brown feathers are mottled and barred with darker brown bars and spots arranged in such a way that make it difficult to tell them from the dead leaves of the forest floor. The ‘ruffed’ in their name refers to their long dark neck feathers. While present on both males and females these are much more prominent in the male and are used as part of his display (either in defense of his territory or to attract females) in which he puffs out his ruff and fans his tail making him look much larger than he really is.
I have heard more ruffed grouse than I have seen. They are extremely secretive birds, unless they are attacking your windows or car or you. A friend had a ruffed grouse hang out near her driveway all spring that would fling itself at the car whenever it came down the driveway. I’ve heard of similar repeated attacks on windows and on trail runners. In all cases I would assume the ruffed grouse felt it was defending territory (the males are often described as aggressively territorial) or perhaps its young.
When ruffed grouse are in your neighborhood you will usually hear them drumming in the spring rather than actually see them. These are males either displaying for females or defending their territory. The drummer often stands on a drumming log - this can be a log, a rock or a dirt mound, puffs his body up and rapidly beats the air with his wings creating a vacuum which in turn generates the drumming noise (in the same way that thunder is produced by lightning). This is hard work! According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology: “The drums are a series of progressively faster thumps produced by air rushing to fill the vacuum created under the wings when they are rapidly flapped in front of the body.” The drumming sound can carry for about a quarter mile. The drumming log was so named because we used to think the sound was produced by the male beating his wings on a log, now we know better.
Right now ruffed grouse are using some ingenious adaptations to help them cope with the harsh winter weather. In the winter, their toes grow comb-like projections (called pectinations) off the sides that are thought to help grouse walk on the top of snow, like snowshoes. Long feathers grow down over their nostrils to help warm incoming air and their legs are also feather-covered for added insulation. If the snow is deep and it is particularly cold, ruffed grouse use loose snow piles as winter roosts. They’ll plunge into a snowbank and use the soft snow as insulation, often building a tunnel by flapping their wings and then staying inside these self-styled igloos for most of the day, emerging only to feed. They exit their snow tunnels by exploding out of the snowbank - sometimes right under the feet of an unwary snow walker. I’ve heard about this but never experienced it myself, sounds very exciting.
While it is unlikely that you will see a ruffed grouse and you won’t hear one since it is too early to drum, try looking for their tracks in the snow. And as winter sets in and we get some real snow, let’s hope all the grouse in our neighborhood are staying safe and warm in their winter snow roosts.
Susan Pike, a researcher and an environmental sciences and biology teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, welcomes your ideas for future column topics. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of her Nature News columns online.