The Ruffed Grouse

Ralph LaPlant

Those of us who take advantage of walking through the woods in autumn or winter can probably relate to being startled by the sudden departure of a ruffed grouse from its position of cover. The wings beat rapidly (as do our hearts) as the bird flies through the thick cover to another place of hiding.

There are four recognized races of this grouse – the ruffed, Canada ruffed, gray ruffed and the Oregon ruffed. The ruffed grouse is about 18 inches long and has a fan-shaped tail with a broad black band near the tip. The grouse’s range in Minnesota includes the area north of a line from the southeast corner of the state to about Moorhead. The gray-brown birds are located at the northern part of the range and the reddish-brown at the southern.

The drumming of the crested male grouse serves three purposes – as a call for females, a challenge to combat and as a way to spend surplus energy. The drumming for mating occurs in the spring.

The grouse nests on the ground, which makes its eggs and young prey for skunks, hawks and fox. The nest will usually contain about a dozen buff-colored eggs by early May. A nest sitting grouse is not easily noticed because of camouflage. It leaves little, if any scent. These help protect it from dogs.

Incubation of the eggs takes about 24 days and chicks leave the nest as soon as they are dry. The mother cares for her young as some males abandon them.

After about two weeks the young are able to fly. Their main summer course of food is vegetation (90%) with insects making up the remainder of the diet. Only about half of the young grouse survive the summer months due to numerous enemies. The grouse that survive the summer scatter in fall.

Around that time grouse develop horny projections on the sides of their toes, giving them a “snowshoe” effect. They lie in stores of fat and grow a downy covering. 

During the winter they move from the high ground to sheltered valleys and subsist on buds, foliage, twigs and dried berries.

Minnesota is ranked number one in roughed grouse population with over a half-million taken yearly by hunters. Its fluctuating population that is supposed to be about ten years from maximum to minimum is protected by law in Minnesota with the roughed grouse legally hunted with a daily limit along with spruce grouse, which are located to the north. Also known as partridge, the ruffed grouse is Pennsylvania’s sate bird and lives, as a rule, to about six years of age.

LaPlant is a conservation officer based in Holyke, MN.