What factors determine the most challenging game bird to hunt in North America?
There are a few ways to fuel a fury-filled debate in any subculture. For uplanders, simply state that your favorite game bird is King of the Uplands and watch the chaos ensue. But what does it take to claim the title of king? Is it the bird’s behavior or environment? Are external factors involved, or is it just in our heads? Perhaps it’s a combination of many things.
“There are champions eager to rise and contest this claim in behalf of Bob White, princely little bird of the rag-weed and sedge. None will discount the thrill of the covey rise, his speed of wing, nor yet his charm for the bird dog. There are those who say that the sweetest chords of music are but hollow sounds compared to the magical whistle of the woodcock, that round, long-billed, squat-bodied bird of mystery and the dark soil under the alders. Then, too, a newer generation of upland gunners has adopted with enthusiasm the Ring-necked Pheasant, the gaudy immigrant, leggy, raucous, a handy bird for field trials and excellent either roasted or fried. But after all has been said and done, when it comes to native wariness, individual daring and resourcefulness, power, cunning and all those things that place one creature above another, physically and mentally, then we must turn to our native pa’tridge, I should say our native grouse, is known to those who have seen him at his best. He is the king of American game birds and so those who have hunted them all will attest.”
In this article, I am not attempting to claim a crown for the ruffed grouse; after all, monarchs suck. This is a critical look at what makes one upland game bird more challenging to hunt than the next. I focus on the historical and biological reasons why the first modern upland hunters of this continent called the ruffed grouse king. Spoiler alert: it’s not your average “my bird is harder to hunt than yours” story. Personally, I caution such statements out of anyone’s mouth, myself included.
Trial by Market Hunting
The earliest New England writers claimed the ruffed grouse’s royalty well before the turn of the century for a good reason. Rewind the clock to the colonization of New England and we find ourselves in a game-rich land. Game birds, like many species, found themselves pursued by snare, gun, and any other method that would put either dinner on the table or money in the bank. As a result, market hunting negatively impacted at least four native game birds for over two centuries.
In the 1600s, there was an absurd amount of heath hens. William Harnden Foster wrote, “According to Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts, who died in 1649, the heath hen was once so abundant in the open country around Boston that laborers and servants demanded in agreements with their masters that they should not be fed on heath hen ‘oftener than a few times a week.’ The old-timers must have done some serious execution for so toothsome a bird as the heath hen to go against the palates of laborers working from daylight till dark in the tang of the New England air.”
The passenger pigeon went extinct next. Sold in the markets of Boston, they were a common food source until unregulated hunting eliminated them entirely. The advancement of colonization caused wild turkeys to experience rapid population declines, too. Thankfully, the species was successfully reintroduced in the 20th century. The spruce grouse, or “fool’s hen,” never really wised up to hunting pressure. It’s still illegal to hunt them in New England today. The New England ruffed grouse was pursued alongside all of these game birds.
As the Civil War rolled around, these four species experienced such drastic population declines, they were no longer profitable to hunt (Foster 1948).
“By the time the pursuit of pa’tridges as a market bird was taken up as a serious enterprise the muzzle-loading shotgun of refined line and excellent efficiency was in the hands of the market hunter. Dogs, varying from general utility spaniels to well-bred bird dogs, were also in use, and there was some pa’tridge and woodcock shooting done both by the market hunter and by the few sportsmen who, by that time, were beginning to appear. However, for a decade or two after the attention of the market hunter was first turned to the harvesting of pa’tridges, the chief method of taking the bird in profitable numbers was by the use of the snare.”
Snaring was banned by the turn of the century. This eliminated what was considered by many market hunters as the only cost-effective way to hunt grouse. The ruffed grouse was too difficult to hunt to be profitable, to drive to the brink of extinction.
From that time on, ruffed grouse hunting in New England was ground zero for the modern North American upland hunter. Alongside the American woodcock, the most iconic early literary classics in upland hunting would be written in New England. Many of the practices we use today from the modern strap vest, dog bell, and even hunting from station wagons were founded by these early fathers of modern wingshooting.
Early Famous Uplanders that Crowned the Ruffed Grouse King
While I am unsure if S.T. Hammond was the first famous writer to claim that the ruffed grouse was of royal stock, his book My Friend the Partridge: Memories of New England Grouse Shooting is one of the oldest odes to this difficult bird. Hammond was an editor of Forest and Stream, one of the oldest hunting publications in the United States. It is important to note that Hammond, among other historical upland hunting figures, hunted the entire country for various species of native game birds. He had, to his understanding, enough knowledge to compare the ruffed grouse to other game birds. “The ruffed grouse in New England, commonly called partridge, is the very best game bird that inhabits this continent. I say this advisedly, and without fear of contradiction from any sportsman who has hunted them enough to become fairly well acquainted with their habits and is at all expert in their capture,” he wrote.
William Harnden Foster, editor of National Sportsman Magazine, had little hesitation claiming that the New England ruffed grouse was the most challenging game bird. He even pointed out how other subspecies of the ruffed grouse were far easier quarry than the New England subspecies. Another New Englander, three-time Secretary of State Daniel Webster, is documented to have loved the ruffed grouse “not wisely, but too well” (Hammond 1908). Aldo Leopold famously wrote, “There are two kinds of hunting: ordinary hunting and ruffed grouse hunting,” although it’s worth noting he hunted upper midwestern subspecies of ruffed grouse.
Not all Subspecies of Ruffed Grouse are Created Equal
The location of subspecies of ruffed grouse must be accounted for when claiming it as king. There remains a very distinct belief that ruffed grouse, as they vary across the North American landscape, are not the same bird. Simply hunt Bonasa umbellus sabini in the west and Bonasa umbellus umbellus in the northeast and attempt to reconcile the differences.
The biologically history on subspecies for ruffed grouse has changed multiple times. In 1931, six subspecies were recognized. This was a point of much discussion in biologist Frank Edminster’s book The Ruffed Grouse, its Life Story, Ecology, and Management that was published in 1947. Currently, the American Ornithologists’ Union recognizes 10 subspecies of ruffed grouse. Biologists are still debating if there’s more subspecies going unaccounted for. For example, the northern midwest is home to Bonasa umbellus umbelloides. Some argue that it should be separated from its Canadian counterpart, and biologists should update the subspecies’ taxonomical title to Bonasa umbellus medianus.
Foster distinguished a strong behavioral difference between Bonasa umbellus togata of Northern New England, sometimes referred to as the Canadian Ruffed Grouse, and the New England grouse of his hunting haunts, Bonasa umbellus umbellus. When I take a critical look, it’s tough to argue that Bonasa umbellus umbellus has some genetic predisposition to be more challenging than its counterparts. Instead, their difficulty to hunt may be a product of exposure and their environment.
Hunting Pressure and Transgenerational Stress Inheritance of Game Birds
Almost 20 years ago, I wrote on the concept of rapid adaptation of whitetail deer behavior in urban and suburban environments. I theorized that stress was being genetically passed on rather than being purely a learned behavior and it ultimately compounded over time. At first, I was laughed at by the greater of the hunting community. But in 2012, the theory was scientifically proven and published and given the term “transgenerational stress inheritance.” To be clear, it had nothing to do with my writing, but yet it validated something I felt was a measurable adaptation.
Recently, I came across this passage by S.T. Hammond: “I can readily understand why it is that a bird that is consistently hunted and shot at should in a short time become wary when it had reason to believe that deadly foes were seeking its destruction, but I cannot understand how it is that young and presumably unsophisticated birds, that have never been previously disturbed by the hunter, should vie with the ‘oldest’ patriarch in the knowledge of ways and means outwit even the most expert hunter.” Although he didn’t know it at the time, Hammond pointed out the effects of transgenerational stress inheritance on New England ruffed grouse. New England grouse specifically are the longest hunted upland game bird by modern methods in the United States. The only exception is the American woodcock and Wilson’s snipe, which experienced historical pressure alongside the grouse.
I think this provides evidence for two important things. One is that not all birds rapidly adapt under the rules of transgenerational stress inheritance. (Recall the spruce grouse.) Second is that native game birds throughout the rest of the country had yet to experience 100-plus years of consistent modern hunting pressure, creating the opportunity for more wary future generations. This could be part of why the other ruffed grouse subspecies did not adapt behaviorally at the same rate as New England ruffed grouse. The wild birds we hunt across North America today are not your granddaddy’s birds.
This may be the strongest point when it comes to debating which game bird species is king. Western wing shooting has become more accessible since the early 1800s and only grown in popularity over time. It will be interesting to watch the effects of this comparatively novel hunting pressure.
When Food Sources are Not Simple
Ruffed grouse are interesting when it comes to diet. Their seemingly unrestricted diet adds to their level of difficulty. A study conducted in the 1940s identified 505 items that northeastern ruffed grouse ate. Additionally, 25 plant species are considered to make up 65 to 88 percent of northeastern grouse diets (Edminster 1947). Foster pointed out Bonasa umbellus togata’s distinct preference for leaf-based food sources when compared to the native New England grouse. As someone who hunts both subspecies regularly, Bonasa umbellus togata is far easier quarry. Maybe this is a result of their penchant for leafy greens and the subsequent ability to locate them in areas where this food type is widely available.
Foster believed that ruffed grouse eating behaviors was one of the greatest factors when debating how challenging a bird is. Foster wrote, “The strange part of it is that the grouse is a decided gourmet. It will apparently pass by quantities of food that is known to be a part of its diet and go long distances for some other item. It is this search for food that keeps the grouse on the move and the novice gunner, while he cannot be blamed for looking for the grouse population of his hunting area in the cool bottoms or in the shady pines during the early part of the season, might be astonished to find the birds concentrated on a dry beech ridge, for instance, several miles away, or some other seemingly unlikely spot.”
Foster thought that this “decided gourmet” behavior is unique to the ruffed grouse when compared to other game birds. Finding feeding grounds seems simple, however, the vast palate of New England ruffed grouse makes merely finding birds very challenging.
Terrain-based and Environmental Factors
When considering terrain- and environmental-based factors when determining which bird is the upland king, these elements are not meant to be a measure of intelligence of a game bird or its difficulty for the dogs. Instead, they depict the difficulty of wingshooting itself.
Put a look of awe on any lifelong partridge hunter’s face by inviting them out to a prairie. The experience of hunting sharptails in open country puts the statement “ignore the trees” into perspective. Torturous Hell’s Canyon chukar country starkly contrasts against the midwest’s gentle landscapes. New England’s thorn-covered mountains may only be rivaled in the grouse realm by the mountain laurel thickets native to the southern Appalachians. Again, this is not about the intelligence of the birds; it’s just about how each species’ habitats impact their hunting difficulty.
If you trained your dog in thick northern forests, try dropping him in the dryness of the west. See how scenting conditions and understanding new game birds can really throw him off. The list of natural yet alien experiences can fill volumes as hunters and dogs cross landscapes to hunt birds. The intelligence of the game bird itself is not the only factor that makes a game bird challenging. Our own knowledge, or lack thereof, can turn any bird into a real challenge.
The Measure of Our Diverse Upland Species will Never be Equal
The challenge of each game bird species changes every season. Annual environmental conditions affect behavior, bird populations, and even have cultural impacts in the upland community. You might think I made a convincing case to give the New England ruffed grouse the title King of the Game Birds despite these ever-changing factors. However, I would argue that although we may as whole identify the more challenging species, this title will never be designated for just one.
To truly know a game bird, one must live among their coverts, hunt them as if its their religion, and study them like a scientist. It can take decades to barely peel back the layers of complexity for a bird like the ruffed grouse. This holds true for all game birds. The expert necessary to hold enough knowledge to crown a king will simply never exist. Additionally, each upland hunter that creates a specific formula intended to identify a king only adds to the discrimination. The personal hurdles, skills, and excitement among each hunter makes each species nomination highly biased.
The measure of difficulty for each game bird is always a thought in the back of my mind. After hunting birds across three continents, I have found some species exciting and others disappointing. Admittedly, I also have yet to experience some of the bigger contenders for the title of king, including the chukar of the west. However, I have measured the difficulty of pursuing almost all the subspecies of ruffed grouse and have yet to find one as challenging as those in southern New England. Yet, just like other upland hunters, I am biased, too.
Right now, I believe I have hunted birds less challenging than the ruffed grouse. However, to truly rank the difficulty of the birds I’ve hunting, I must temper over 30 years of pursuing them. Comparatively, I only have weeks or months of experience hunting other species. The American woodcock is the only other bird I feel comfortable comparing to the grouse. While I love the queen of the forests, she can leave one wanting when it comes to difficult challenges. That being said, the woodcock’s role in training grouse dogs is something that cannot be overlooked. Woodcock make for beautiful dog work and not much messiness among expectations. Is that not the fabric of royal blood? Woodcock challenge the very concept of a single royal title.
Ruffed grouse do not practice social etiquette. They are mischievous, unpredictable, and independent thinkers. They shatter skilled bird dogs and humble the best wingshooters. Woodcock hunting is the embodiment of fine art; comparatively, ruffed grouse hunting feels like an act of violence. Maybe ruffed grouse are court jesters instead of true royalty. But in terms of challenging game birds, the New England ruffed grouse is certainly one for the books.
A.J. DeRosa founded Project Upland in 2014 as an excuse to go hunting more often (and it worked). A New England native, he grew up hunting and has spent over 35 years in pursuit of big and small game species across three continents. He has a passion for side-by-side shotguns, inspiring him to travel the world to meet the people and places from which they come. Looking to turn his passion into inspiration for others, AJ was first published in 2004 and went on to write his first book The Urban Deer Complex in 2014. He soon discovered a love for filmmaking, particularly the challenge of capturing ruffed grouse with a camera, which led to the award-winning Project Upland film series. AJ's love for all things wild has caused him to advocate on the federal and state levels to promote and expand conservation policy, habitat funding, and upland game bird awareness. He currently serves as the Strafford County New Hampshire Fish & Game Commissioner in order to give back to his community and to further the mission of the agency. When those hunting excuses are in play, you can find him wandering behind his Wirehaired Pointing Griffon in the mountains of New England and anywhere else the birds take them.