Ruffed Grouse Sighting a Pleasant Surprise

By Bill Reid for the Norwich Bulletin

This past March I was hiking through a forest that had recently gone through an extensive timber harvest.

Most of what foresters refer to as the overstory, composed of dominant, mature white pine, had been harvested to make way for younger and mid-sized deciduous oaks, maples, pines and birch trees.

nesting grouse

Hen grouse site their nests on the ground in thick cover./C. Fergus

These smaller trees and shrubs had been losing the battle for growing space and light, but now, with the larger shading pines removed, they will grow faster and fuller as they reach upward to the life-giving sun.

As I walked along the logging trails and the newly opened space where the larger pines had been located, I looked down at the tangle of branch debris and considered the important role that rotting woody debris has in bringing nutrients to the forest floor.

I wondered as well about the impact on wildlife, especially the birds that will soon be arriving to their familiar nesting grounds.

My contemplative hike was suddenly interrupted by the thunderous eruption of wings very close to me, and I stood with mouth agape as a large brown-colored bird twisted and turned its way through the trees and deeper into the forest.

I had flushed a ruffed grouse, a bird that I had not seen on that property since the early 1970s.

I understood that the timber harvest would help create, or more aptly bring back, the type of habitat favored by ruffed grouse, but little did I expect to find a bird checking out the land within a month of the cutting.

This got me thinking about ruffed grouse, their preferred habitat and conservation concerns for these amazing and beautiful birds. I did some reading and here is what I learned.

Ruffed grouse prefer a diverse forest habitat that has a mixture of older and younger trees as well as open spaces. They forage for seeds, buds and fruit from many plants and shrubs and also eat insects.

I am hopeful and confident the newly created open spaces in the woods I walked through in March will provide the type of habitat the grouse seek.

New England cottontail in habitat

Young forest that grows following a timber harvest provides habitat for many animals, including the rare New England cottontail./M. Poole

One of the concerns we have in New England is the preponderance of older, even-aged trees dominating forest habitat. Our forests have successfully regrown from the age of agriculture when much of the land in southern New England had been cleared for farming.

Older, even-aged trees and forests are not the type of habitat suited for several species of birds such as ruffed grouse and American woodcock, or mammal species such as the New England cottontail.

In more recent years, foresters and forest landowners are increasingly looking to create open spaces called “patch cuts.” These include large clearings of several acres with important edge areas between the openings and the deeper forest — favorite habitat for many types of animals.

The forest I was hiking did not have large patch cuts as part of the timber harvest; however, the openings created by removal of the large pines did provide much more openness than had been present for many years.

The range of the ruffed grouse is widespread from Alaska and northern Canada south to the mountains of Georgia and California. They do not migrate and will spend their entire life within a relatively small area — provided that the area has the suitable grouse habitat and preferred food sources.

Ruffed grouse are a medium-sized bird of 16 to 19 inches in length with a wingspan of two feet. They have dark ruff-like feathers on their neck, a broad tail marking with a dark band near the tip and can be either reddish-brown or grayish-brown.

One of the more unique features of ruffed grouse is the drumming sound the male creates during courtship and breeding season. I have heard this sound and it is remarkable for its loudness and speed.

The male will stand on a fallen log or stump, anchor himself with sharp claws, and bring his rounded and cupped wings backwards until the tips are almost touching. He then starts bringing the wings forward and backwards a few times, slowly at first, then increasing speed.

Young forest in Connecticut

Young forest habitat created by a timber harvest in Connecticut./C. Fergus

At first it sounds like a heartbeat, and then it sounds like an old tractor engine turning over until it builds to a “brrrrrrrrr” sound. In short 10-second intervals, the grouse may stroke its wings up to 50 times.

The male is using this sound to announce his territory to other male grouse while also appealing to potential mates. Similar to wild turkeys, he will strut and fan his tailfeathers at intruding males.

I have heard the sound of the male ruffed grouse and it is definitely one of the unique sounds in nature. I hope to hear it again soon when next I visit the recent timber harvest.

The female grouse will build a nest on the ground in a slight depression at the base of a log, rock or tree. The nest is lined with dry grass and leaves. The female will lay eggs every few days until there are nine to 14 eggs total. She will then begin incubation that lasts approximately 24 days, depending on cold or wet weather.

The nest location and perfect camouflage color of the female makes it almost impossible to detect the nest. Soon after hatching, the chicks are able to scurry about and will be able to fly at 10 to 12 days. By six weeks of age the chicks will have developed plumage similar in color to the adult birds.

The population of ruffed grouse fluctuates depending on their preferred habitat. Their favored edge and open areas with younger shrubs and trees will only remain that way for approximately 10 years.

I am hopeful that the grouse I saw in March will breed and nest in that forest location, and for 10 or more years the drumming sound of male ruffed grouse will echo through the woods.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years.