Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus)
Ruffed Grouse, often called native partridge on the Island, are pigeon-sized birds belonging to the chicken family. They are forest-dwellers, commonly seen along woods roads or venturing into orchards and hedgerows. Except during the breeding season they are usually solitary birds, unlike the Hungarian (grey) partridge. In recent years the introduced Sharptail Grouse is sometimes mistaken for the native, but the Sharptail, as its name tells you, has a distinctive sharp tail, and is more greyish in colour. Look for a red-brown, chicken-like bird with a small crest and the distinctive brown ‘ruff’ feathers on the neck – that’s our ruffed grouse.
In spring the males compete for a drumming site, usually a fallen log. The distinctive drumming sound is made with wing beats, at first slow, then quickening to a blur, and lasting a few seconds. (Sounds a bit like someone trying to start a balky engine!). The males can be endearingly aggressive during the breeding season; woodsmen tell tales of this pint-sized bird trying to chase them away, or even attacking a vehicle! The successful drummer may mate with several females, who then become totally responsible for nest-building and incubation. About a dozen eggs are laid in a depression on the ground, often at the base of a tree. The female may show distraction behavior, luring danger away from her nest with a broken-wing act. The chicks when hatched are precocious, able to run and fly quite quickly to escape danger. They usually disperse in fall, although sometimes you will see several feeding together as winter approaches.
Grouse populations are somewhat cyclical, varying from low to high density on about a ten-year pattern. There are many explanations for these density changes, none completely satisfactory.
Grouse-lovers just have to get used to seeing many birds in one year and perhaps far fewer the next. You can get an approximate idea of the population in your woodlot by tracking them in winter, or counting the number of drummers in spring.
Habitat and food:
grouse like young, dense second-growth forest. They need nesting and escape cover (such as dense conifers) near open areas. Young poplar and alder stands are particularly important. Drumming logs or sites are also necessary for the spring competition. In winter grouse feed on a wide variety of buds. The young are primarily insect-eaters.
Opening up dense alder stands, managing or planting poplar so that uneven aged young stands are always present, planting other native food species such as apple, wild pear, ironwood… these are the key activities. Such management benefits other species such as snowshoe hare; good grouse habitat is also good for rabbits!
To begin, survey the area that you want to manage. Are there sizeable blocks of alders? These should be opened up with small patch cuts, encouraging new growth and also allowing for ground plants to get started. What is the poplar situation? If there are only mature trees, thin them out to encourage new growth, and keep repeating this pattern to ensure that a new ‘crop’ will be coming along. Try to establish some apple or hawthorn – these can be planted as seedlings, with some protection in the early stages to keep mouse and hare browse down to an acceptable level.