The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


April 12, 2014

Focus on Wildlife: Ruffed Grouse

— On our only trip afield together, I watched and listened in amazement as Ned Smith imitated the drumming sound that a nearby ruffed grouse was making.  

He used a series of lightning-fast fist thumps on his partially exposed chest to call-out a muffled and rapidly increasing drum cadence.

He had perfected this “grouse call” as a young boy. The grouse that he was communicating with responded very well to his fist-and-thumbs-to-open hand call.

At the time of our outing, Ned and I were serving on a state sportsmen’s advisory group that was, for the most part, a boring review of proposed policy initiatives and governmental mumbo-jumbo.  

As a group, we thought that we were doing good and important work. But to a person, each one of us would have much rather been in the great outdoors and not a stuffy board room.  

Ned and I concluded every meeting with plans to get together. However, our outings were restricted to just this one grouse scouting trip due to his untimely death in 1985.

For the past 83 years, the ruffed grouse has served as Pennsylvania’s state bird.  One at look at this bird’s colorful plumage with feathers that can appear to be shimmering iridescent and it’s easy to understand why it was elevated to this status.

Ruffed grouse are plentiful throughout much of “Penn’s Woods.” In fact, the Management Plan for Ruffed Grouse in Pennsylvania 2011-2020 published by the Pennsylvania Game Commission states that ruffed grouse are North America’s mostly widely distributed resident game bird. Their scientific name is Bonasa umbellas.

Unfortunately, the ruffed grouse population in our state is on the decline.  Not surprising, the number of Pennsylvania grouse hunters has also fallen along with the three-decade slide.  

The main purpose of the management plan is to reverse this trend. The key culprit leading to less grouse is the destruction of suitable habitat. In 1980, when grouse were at their all-time high numbers, 19.6 percent of the forests in our state were “young” and provided critical “early-successional habitat.”

Today, young forest, which is a forest less than 20 years in growth, make up only 11.6 percent of our statewide forests.

The management plan offers several recommendations that will help our forests to provide life-giving habitat for grouse and other wildlife.  

Some of these suggestions include: targeted aspen management, leaving clumps of trees in clear-cut patches and reducing canopy cover in forest wet areas to promote a shrubby understory. If you’re interested in ruffed grouse conservation, the management plan is worth your time to read.

Grouse are gallinaceous (meaning they have heavy bodies and feed on the ground) that are related to quail, pheasants and turkeys. Domesticated chickens are distant cousins with grouse.  

A full-grown grouse weighs about a pound and a half with an overall body length of 15-19 inches.  Their wing span is just a little wider than their body length which gives them an appearance of having stubby wings.

The plumage of a grouse is a rich brown with sprinklings of white and black feathers. Horizontal and radial bars of black and white make their tails particularly spectacular. These bars vary in width with black bands fading into gray bands that become brownish.  

I’ve seen grouse on bright days like yesterday and their plumage seemed to glow and shift in shades of brown and black.

The name “ruffed” comes from a ruff or “necklace” of iridescent black feathers that completely encircles the bird’s neck.  Some of our local ruffed grouse can be spotted in their “silvertailed” phase with grayish tails rather than the traditional brown tail.

Right now, its courtship time for ruffed grouse.  When courting, the male grouse can be seen with very prominent ruffs that are fluffed up as his courtship display.

“Fruits of the forest” such as wild blackberries, blueberries, cherries and grapes are staples in the grouse’ diet. Until these fruits become available later in the season, grouse will thrive on last year’s acorns and dried berries. Grouse will eat nearly any of the buds that are coming on quickly these days.

Once a hen has mated, she will pick a secluded nest site, usually at the base or in the crook of a tree. Nests can be found under bushes and low-flung mountain laurel.

The hen will lay six to 16 buff-colored eggs in her nest that typically consists of leaves and small sticks.  Her chicks will be ready to explore beyond their nest soon after birth. Unfortunately, the juvenile mortality of ruffed grouse is huge.

By the time they’re three weeks old, these chicks will begin “flight lessons.”

By early fall, young grouse will be on their own and participating in their ritual of “crazy flight.” This is time when young grouse take off into undirected flight. It’s great time to be in the woods because the grouse are going in every, different direction.  

But alas, nature knows best, because grouse researchers have discovered that this “crazy flight” serves the purpose of scattering the broods and thereby improving the diversity and health of the grouse flock year after year.

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