Ruffed grouse. Photo by NPS

 

“Whump…..whump….whump…whump..whump, whump, whump, whump.” The first time I heard it was hiking in the Smokey Mountains. I was raised further south and had gone there to backpack. At first, I thought it was a helicopter somewhere in the distance. My backpacking buddy, who was from West Virginia, laughed at me.

Of course, readers of this column know this bird well. It’s the Ruffed Grouse (photo National Park Service) and it’s native to the mixed forests across Alaska, Canada and extending through our area all the way down through the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

This chicken-sized bird is a mottled brown, gray, black and white . It prefers early successional forests where it can hide in the thick saplings and shrubby understory. Forests dominated by poplar are its favorite. It eats leaves, buds and fruit from young plants. In the winter it relies on catkins from aspen, birch and willows.

At first glance, Ruffed Grouse can be confused with a female Spruce Grouse, but the two live in very different habitat. The Spruce Grouse tends to stick to coniferous forest, especially boreal forest at higher elevations. A female Ring-necked Pheasant, an introduced species, can have a similar appearance, but usually the pheasant’s long tail is a dead give-away.

Ruffed Grouse get their name for a ridge of feathers around their neck that stand up when excited. Male Ruffed Grouse are also well known for their drumming which it uses to establish its territory and attract mates. The males make this sound by rapidly flapping their wings. It creates an accelerating “whump” noise that sounds like an engine cranking. When displaying, a male will often find a log or rock that forms a bit of a stage for its performance. Drumming can be heard year-round but is much more common in the spring.

Because these birds live in dense cover, they can be hard to see. If you’ve spent any time in the woods, chances are you’ve flushed a grouse which explodes from cover when you are only a few feet away. In the winter, grouse are no easier to see, and Ruffed Grouse will dive into loose snow to hide or avoid predators. This winter watch for their foot prints when walking in a young forest.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME. To learn more visit www.mahoosuc.org. To contact James, send your emails to [email protected]


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