Ruffed Grouse

Wildlife used to be abundant here in the hollow. Unfortunately in recent years, fewer and fewer animals move through this property, or live here year-round. I suspect that because this parcel of land is sandwiched between others that have been decimated by logging or clearing, the animals can’t find the refuge or necessary food they need to survive.

There are other more indirect reasons like building, a shifting landscape, and climate change that are also probable factors. As a result, I have turned my attention to plants and trees for most of my writing inspiration. But during the winter I still ‘read’ the snow.

I begin to snowshoe as soon as the snow is on the ground. Historically, one of my favorite winter activities has been to track the animals that are in my woods, occupying the edges of my small field, or living around my brook.

This year I have been sorely disappointed. Although I am pleased not to see as many deer passing through here on their way to being fed elsewhere, I am saddened by the reality that there are so few other animals to track.

I used to have a magnificent coywolf who lived around here (now these hybrids are generally considered to be wolves), but I understand that this animal was shot. I wondered why I hadn’t seen one of his distinctive large round footprints or his scat since fall. There are no coyotes.

I also wonder if we aren’t in a cyclic crash that affects the rabbits and hares every 10 years or so because this year there are so few scattered tracks of either. Weasels and mink are absent and these two have always made homes around the brook.


One unpleasant exception to all this scarcity is the seemingly endless amount of squirrel tracks around the house. With winter temperatures warming red and gray squirrels no longer disappear for a period of rest. Because I have been overrun by both reds and grays, I have stopped feeding my birds anywhere except on one too-exposed pole that is squirrel proof some of the time.

There is one gray squirrel that occasionally makes a suicidal leap from a maple limb so high up and so far from the feeder that if I hadn’t witnessed the drop I wouldn’t have believed it possible. Most of the time this magician slams into hard ground, apparently without harm. I expect this behavior to worsen with time as he teaches relatives to ‘fly’.

The one joy has been the partridge or Ruffed grouse who seem to be thriving overall. I have a young white pine forest and enough ground juniper to provide good cover; the latter also acts as a source of food.

The birds eat these twigs and can digest them because they rely on a gizzard, a part of their digestive tract, where with the help of grains of dirt or sand that they swallow, are able to break down the tough cellulose fibers.

There are many sources of winter food on this property. Alder, poplar, birch, willow buds, and catkins are abundant as are the berries from crabapples (In the other three seasons grouse spend much of their time eating more than 100 kinds of plants, berries, other fruits, and insects).

I have a male grouse who drums in exactly the same place below the house each spring. This male can’t be responsible for the population I have now, I don’t think, but each April I only have one drummer, so where do these other grouse come from? Are they children who have decided to stay instead of dispersing?


This abundance creates a bit of a conundrum. By the way, the drumming sound is actually the result of the bird beating its wings and displaying for a female. As the bird quickly rotates its wings forward and backward, air rushes in beneath the wings creating a miniature vacuum that generates a deep, thumping sound wave that carries up to a quarter of a mile.

Although in a few years the pines will be too big to support a robust partridge population, at the moment I have a perfect ecological niche for these birds. I also have small brush piles in a number of places that they appreciate. Last summer one grouse nested just behind the fence in one pile that I separated into others so the brush would decompose more efficiently.

The chicks were making short flights five days after they were born, fully clothed in feathered fluff. All summer I watched the mother take her brood through the high grass to reach the brook for bathing. When I met her early in the morning with her miniature adults she seemed unafraid in my presence.

In early August, the last time I saw her with her brood, the chicks had matured and were about almost as big as their mother. She had lost three and still had five in tow. In general, it is unusual for a grouse to end up with more than three chicks in all because of predation.

Although this grouse apparently perceived that I was no threat to her young, if I come upon one in the woods, the mother will attempt to protect her chicks by distracting me with a broken wing story. By the end of the summer, the young will be as big as their mother. Dispersal is supposed to occur in September.

Because I have crab apple trees with berries, I see the greatest number of grouse in the fall, perching on these tree branches around the house and gulping down berries as fast as they can. Just a few days ago, I lost what I believe was a young grouse to a goshawk (whose confidence around being so visible in the middle of the day under open skies probably betrayed his youth and inexperience).


This wily predator regularly hunts here swooping low to the ground. I had photographed the grouse around noon one day sitting in one tree that still had a few berries on it. It is an astonishing sight to see a bird dressed in burnt sienna, ochre, mole brown, and buff that has barred tail feathers dipped in black ink.

The bird’s ability to camouflage itself in plain sight was quite bewildering but apparently not good enough because later loose feathers told the tale. S/he was plucked from the tree and dropped, apparently by accident by the goshawk, attempted an escape, and was caught again. The end of the story was written in the snow.

Two days passed – no grouse –- and then to my great delight, another grouse arrived in the deepening dusk gobbling down tiny bird-like birch seeds in front of my window. It took a moment to realize that the partridge was also pecking at the dirt in the one place where the ground stays bare and some wild celandine rosettes lay frozen (these birds can tolerate very bitter and sometimes toxic plants).

After the grouse disappeared into the pine forest I went out with a flashlight to see if the bird left tracks. The light splintered like bits of quartz, but I couldn’t see one footprint. Grouse grow projections on their feet in the fall that act like snowshoes making it easy for them to walk in all but the fluffiest or wettest snow without discernible footprints and this snow had a crust (In the spring they shed these pectinations). I have also seen as many as three grouse foraging together in the deciduous trees behind the cabin, no doubt because so many birch seeds fall in these places.

One problem grouse have is that they are don’t store fat efficiently. This means they must eat large amounts of food daily, at dawn and dusk (hopefully). In 20 minutes an adult partridge can swallow enough food to make it through the day.

Each bird has a crop, which is an extended portion of the esophagus that acts as a storage chamber for consumed food. With a loaded crop, the grouse flies to a protected area, where it can safely digest its meal. As previously mentioned these birds are most vulnerable to predators while feeding on berries or the buds of leafless trees.


Red-tailed hawks and great-horned owls are other aerial predators that kill them but I don’t have owls anymore and most hawks want more open space than I have here. So the wily goshawk is the problem. On the ground foxes, coyotes, and fishers are threats, but as far as I can tell I have none of these animals around here either. Ruffed grouse are the number one game bird hunted in Maine, although their numbers have dropped in other states as much as 60 percent. This downhill trend worries me.

When it comes to winter cold grouse know how to keep warm. They develop special feathers that extend down their beaks, covering nostrils, which allow the birds to breathe in warmer air. Ruffed grouse also have feathers partially covering and insulating their legs.

Maybe the most creative adaptation grouse have is the ability to hide out under deep snow and even build tunnels! With no snow, or just a few inches of it, the birds are likely to seek protection in conifer stands. So far this year the ones I flush on my pine paths are hiding in the upper boughs of the thick pines, well-protected.

If the snow is soft and a foot or more deep, grouse may decide to spend the night in an insulated, air-filled snow tunnel. Ruffed grouse build this tunnel by first plunging from a tree into the snow. Then with wings and feet grouse extend their tunnels, sometimes to as much as 10 feet! In previous years when I have been snowshoeing a grouse will suddenly explode out of the snow, always startling me in the process even though I have been through this routine so many times.

Every day I find myself waiting for a grouse to arrive at dusk along with the cardinals. Now I nervously follow the grouse from window to window scanning the sky for predators, which is ridiculous I know. Even though it’s almost dark the birds stand out so starkly against the snow. I just don’t want to lose another one. The partridges may be the only wild friends I make this winter, and besides, they are favorite birds. I have the greatest admiration for them.

Aldo Leopold once wrote, “The autumn landscape in the North Woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a Ruffed grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.

Amen to that.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: