While driving to work on Nov. 5, I was surprised with a wonderful observation of a Ruffed Grouse, which flew across Simerly Creek Road. I got a great look at the grouse as it coasted over a field, crossed the creek and landed in the woods. It’s my first grouse sighting near home in probably more than a year.
The Ruffed Grouse is named for the male’s neck ruff. These feathers around the neck can be erected in mating displays, creating an impressive “collar.”
Males do not vocalize during mating displays, which sets them apart from other species of grouse. Instead, they beat their wings at high speeds to create a thumping sound known as “drumming.” The low-frequency sound carries a good distance even in thick woodlands.
The Ruffed Grouse has been officially recognized as the state bird of Pennsylvania. Legislation enacting the recognition was passed by the General Assembly on June 22, 1931. In the recognition, the Ruffed Grouse is described as a plump bird with mottled reddish-brown feathers. This protective coloring makes it possible for the grouse to conceal itself in the wilds.
As a game bird, the Ruffed Grouse has been studied more extensively than some other birds. This bird is not known for longevity. Few survive to three years of age, according to research conducted by the late Gordon Gullion, head of the Forest Wildlife Project at the University of Minnesota’s Cloquet Forestry Center.
Guillion showed in his research that of 1,000 eggs laid in spring, only about 250 Ruffed Grouse will survive to their first autumn, 120 to their first spring, about 50 to a second spring and less than 20 will still be alive the third spring. These statistics emphasize the many enemies and other perils faced by this game bird. Yet, despite dismal numbers, it’s enough to continue the survival of the species.
According to the website for the National Ruffed Grouse Society, Ruffed Grouse typically have a short life span. A brood consisting of 10 to 12 young are hatched in the spring, but by mid-August about half of them have perished. The cold months of late fall and winter will claim more of them.
Studies have also revealed that Ruffed Grouse populations undergo a cycle of peaks and crashes. This population cycle of peaks and valleys repeats about every 10 years. What this means is that Ruffed Grouse numbers decline to a low point every decade, but there is also a corresponding peak when the local population of Ruffed Grouse surges.
Other related grouse in North America include the Greater Prairie Chicken, also known as the Pinnated Grouse, as well as the Lesser Prairie Chicken, Spruce Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse.
Despite some superficial similarities, grouse are not closely related to quails and turkeys. They are important as a game bird, but careful management is necessary.
Particularly during the nesting season, individual Ruffed Grouse may lose their fear of humans. Many years ago, a Ruffed Grouse boldly walked into my front yard and then ventured onto the front porch. Only my timely intervention rescued the visiting grouse from a cat that belonged to my parents.
Holston Mountain in Carter County has long been one of the more reliable locations for finding Ruffed Grouse, especially during the nesting season.