by Bruce Ruisard
The Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa um- bellus) can be found from across Cana- da to Alaska, in the Pacific Northwest, parts of the Rocky Mountains, in the upper Midwest, down the Appalachian Mountains, and even in parts of Geor- gia. Some have also been found in Iowa and Missouri. What a wide range they inhabit! In Indiana they were once more widespread. Except for a brief period when they survived in northern Indiana, they have mainly been found in south- ern Indiana. They are now found only in four or five counties in south-central Indiana. They do not migrate and are permanent residents throughout their range. They are considered important game birds and are hunted in most of their range.
In northern Indiana they were pre- viously found at or near the Jasper- Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area near Medaryville. Wild trapped birds were released in northern Indiana from 1961 to 1982. There in 1985 I observed a female with three young and also heard two drumming males. I also flushed a single bird in 1989. Park manager Jim Bergins, in a phone conversation, re- ported no reports of grouse for the last two years, and said they went into de- cline around the year 2000. He also stated that due to limited habitat, no future releases of live wild birds are planned.
Ruffed Grouse are fairly large, chicken-like birds. Their plumage is mottled gray and brown and functions exceedingly well as camouflage. They have a prominent dark band near the tip of the tail and a tuft of feathers on the sides of the neck that can be erected into a “ruff”.
Ruffed Grouse have specialized habitat needs. Most live in northern habitats where certain species of pop- lars are common. Mid-sized Aspen trees, touched by fire, are the best habi- tat for these unique birds. South of Can-ada, young stands of Oak and Hickory are the best habitat. Indiana birds are at the far end of their range: other souther- ly populations live at higher elevations of over 2000 feet. They prefer scattered pines for safe winter roosting. They are believed to be a “transitional species during natural succession from grass- land to mature forest, and to a limited extent, a permanent but minor part of the temperate forest community”. Male Ruffed Grouse need a habitat that in- cludes secluded areas that offer both cover and visibility, and a dead log for drumming. Habitat must also include shrubs that produce food such as berries and seeds. Males inhabit, and never leave, about 5 acres of woods, while females may range territories of up to 25 acres which would include the terri- tories of several males.
The drumming behavior of the male is a truly unique behavior, triggered in the spring by increasing sunlight and the male’s hormones. They drum at or before dawn, during day- break, and at dusk. This is also their main feeding time. While firmly perched on a log, with tail braced, the male spreads his wings and rotates his wings forward, then quickly backward. This creates a sudden compression and release of air pressure, which produces the drumlike sound. Males apparently drum to advertise their presence to females and other males and to define territories.
Their diet is mostly vegetarian, but some insects are eaten as well. Important winter foods are tree buds and twigs. Catkins are a favorite spring food, while leaves, berries, and acorns are important in summer and fall. Winter birds can live for 5 to 6 months on Aspen buds alone.
Grouse eat quickly, store the food in their crop, and digest later as their gizzard grinds the food. In the winter, they will leave their roosts for only an hour or less to feed, both early and late in the day.
Grouse are a fairly short lived spe- cies. Females may nest for up to 6 years. They may lay up to 11 eggs in a 17 day period. The weight of the eggs may equal half of a hen’s weight! Nearly 40% of all nests fail, most of which is caused by predators. On average, about 60% of eggs hatch. A hen will leave the nest only for a short while to feed, often in the afternoon. After copulation, the male has nothing more to do with reproduc- tion; the female raises the young alone. While the females nest and raise the young, leading them first to insects and later to berries, the male stays at the drumming site until mid-summer. Males return to the drumming site to claim it again in fall.
Grouse can withstand extremely cold temperatures. Even their nostrils and toes are feathered. In winter, they may even dive into snow to spend the night. They can’t walk on fluffy snow, so during severe weather, they spend most of their time in a snow roost or in a co- niferous tree, both of which provide good insulation.
So, if you are in the woods and a chicken-like bird explodes from the ground into flight, it may be a grouse. Make sure to look for the little crest on their head, the black ruff on the neck and a fantail, if you are close enough to get a good look at one. The drumming of the male with its wing on a log is a com- pletely unique noise and is unmistakable.
While released birds previously provided our region with a few resident birds to observe, suitable habitats to the north of Indiana or areas of higher eleva- tion would be prime areas to find and observe the Ruffed Grouse. With num- bers so low in Indiana, it seems quite odd to me that hunting is permitted in our state.