The ruffed grouse is the game bird that makes the north woods alive (Bonasa umbellus).
This upland game bird, also called a partridge, has easily captured the hearts and interests of hunters across the nation for decades. Aldo Leopold famously said it best in A Sand County Almanac, “Everybody knows…that the autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse…subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.” Whether it’s their subtle drumming that fills the spring woods or the thrilling flush of a bird bolting to the next forty, the ruffed grouse brings so much life to the forest.
Description and Life History of the Ruffed Grouse
The ruffed grouse is a medium sized bird, smaller than a chicken, measuring approximately 12-18 inches long. It has mottled brown, black, gray, maybe some red feathers along its back, and a light brown breast. Its short wings are rounded while its tail fans out. Their coloration allows them to completely disappear in the woods if you’re not looking hard enough. Depending on what environments and climates they live in, these grouse appear in different color phases. Warmer areas usually support more red-phase grouse while colder areas support more gray-phase birds. Brown-phase birds appear in both.
Per its name, the ruffed grouse has a ruff of feathers around its neck that can be raised in a courtship display for females. If there are none of those around, male grouse will do the same to frighten other males with the feigned increase in size. These ruff feathers almost always match the color of the band along the end of its tail fan.
One can usually identify males and females apart. Females are smaller birds. As a result, male tail feathers are usually over 6 inches long while females generally have tail feathers less than 5½ inches. Pluck one of the rump feathers from your bird. If it has 2-3 whitish dots, it is a male. You know it’s a female if it has 0 dots or 1 dot.
Ruffed grouse primarily eat insects and green vegetation like clover, strawberry and bunchberry. Fruits like dogwood berries, hawthorn apples, berries, rosehips make up their diet in the summer. Grouse transition to eating flower buds and catkins in fall and winter from aspen, birch, hazel, and alder trees. Chicks consume mostly insects throughout the seasons, since they are high in protein and help them grow fast.
Male ruffed grouse are very territorial, claiming a core home range of a few acres. Within that range, it will find a felled tree or elevated mound rock to beat their wings. We call this drumming on the account of the noise made. The drumming noise impresses hens and established an individual’s territory. They choose these display areas in places with good visibility. Calling so much attention to their location prevents predation.
After breeding, hens usually make a nest at the base of a tree and line it with feathers and leaf litter or debris. Hens generally lay a clutch of about 12 tan eggs which they incubate for about a month. The chicks are precocial, meaning they can feed themselves and move about almost immediately. They can even fly within a week!
In winter, grouse spend a limited time feeding among the tree tops and dive into snow burrows to stay warm the rest of the day or night. With the finger-like appendages they develop along their toes, they can navigate in the winter snow as if they were wearing snowshoes. Adult predators include northern goshawks and great horned owls, while chicks are preyed upon by fishers, foxes, or bobcats.
Range and Habitat of the Ruffed Grouse
Ruffed grouse are year-round residents that occur across Canada and the northern half of the United States, especially where snow covers the ground for several months. Populations can survive further south along the Rocky and Appalachian mountains, all the way down to Georgia. But they are limited in areas lacking the right forest structure or where winter snows do not persist long.
Ideal grouse habitat includes mixed conifer or hardwood forest stands, as well as alder and dogwood swamps or riparian areas. Mixed aspen and birch forests are the best habitat for grouse in the Great Lakes states, while forests with maple, cherry, and beech are best in the east. Grouse use old farmsteads and apple orchards grown over with thick brush. Conifers like spruce, pines, cedar, and hemlock provide thermal cover and safety from predators, and grouse will hide underneath their boughs or perch among them.
The age of a forest is just as important as the species composition. For example, grouse require early successional forests for brood rearing and foraging. They also need mature forest stands with under-stories of hazel, dogwood, or winterberry for feeding. Finally, they use alder or dogwood swamps for foraging and drumming.
Conservation Issues with the Ruffed Grouse
Ruffed grouse are one of those curious species that follow a 10-year population cycle. This fluctuates from a population high to another high within those 10 years. Other than this natural cycle, grouse populations are fairly stable across the country.
Similar to the American woodcock, habitat loss is the primary threat to grouse. Urbanization and different forest management objectives usually result in mature forests, which is only one component of the grouse habitat puzzle. Historically, wildfires and windstorms occurred somewhat regularly to disturb mature forests and renew young growth. To mimic that response, land managers and partners like the Ruffed Grouse Society use periodic timber harvests, brush shearing, and prescribed fires to rejuvenate a young habitat. Clearcuts might look ugly to the average person. Yet within just a few years they become a dense tangled maze of prime habitat and food for many different wildlife species, including grouse, woodcock, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and cottontail rabbits.
Since grouse home ranges are usually only a few acres, a clearcut larger than 40 acres is less effective than multiple smaller ones. Unfortunately, large cuts are almost always more cost effective and have become the most common approach. A mosaic of habitat types and ages should be pursued by multiple small cuts to best support grouse ranges.
Hunting Opportunities for the Ruffed Grouse
The ruffed grouse can be hunted across most of its range, including the northeastern half of the United States down along the Appalachian mountain states, across the upper Great Lakes states, and along the northwest U.S. The hunting seasons mostly start in September and run through January, although each state has different regulations. Daily bag limits range from one to five birds within the U.S., with higher limits in Canada.
As far as grouse hunting tips, it depends on whether you will hunt with a dog or without one. If you prefer the company of a canine in the woods, check out the latest we have in bird dog training.
It might be harder for a solo hunter to find and flush every grouse, but you can still be very successful. If you’re going alone, focus your efforts on high-quality coverts. When you find the right habitat, take your time and slowly work through it. You don’t want to walk right past a grouse that’s holding tight. To make them flush, pause suddenly and be ready for some action. When they flush, grouse will try to put as many trees and obstacles between you and them as they can. A shy trigger finger will result in far fewer birds at the end of the day. Get used to shooting through cover when you’re after these upland tricksters. And while you’re out, take some breaks to enjoy the crisp, beautiful weather!
Ryan Lisson is a biologist and regular content contributor to several outdoor manufacturers, hunting shows, publications, and blogs. He is an avid small game, turkey, and whitetail hunter from northern Minnesota and loves managing habitat almost as much as hunting. Ryan is also passionate about helping other adults experience the outdoors for their first time, which spurred him to launch Zero to Hunt, a website devoted to mentoring new hunters.