May/June 2017For Wildlife Watchers: Ruffed Grouseby Rob Simbeck

A cold-weather specialist whose winterization process starts at the bottom, with fleshy, comb-like rows of bristles called pectinations that grow on its toes to help with walking on snow and clinging to icy branches.

Few facts about the earth are of more consequence to wildlife watchers than its tilt. We do not sit perpendicular to our orbital plane, with the north pole "up" and the south pole "down." We are offset at twenty-three degrees, about the angle that Sinatra, defining the word "rakish," tilted his hat.

It's a fortunate reality. A "straight-up" earth would be without seasons, which scientists assure us would not be desirable. We may dislike the approach of winter, but recurring freezing temperatures tamp down many of the harmful creatures and pathogens that might otherwise advance farther from the tropics.

Of course, that means we and many other creatures must deal with yearly cold. Some migrate, traveling up to thousands of miles to follow warmth. We humans have worked to shelter, clothe and otherwise prepare ourselves for frigid temperatures; in fact, it's been posited that much technological progress is simply reaction to the harsh realities of winter.

Then there are those with combinations of fur, fat or feathers enabling them to carve out lives amid the ice, snow and sparse food of winter. One is the ruffed grouse, a cold-weather specialist whose winterization process starts at the bottom, with fleshy, comb-like rows of bristles called pectinations that grow on its toes to help with walking on snow and clinging to icy branches. Combine that with feathers covering its legs and nostrils, add the ability to fluff its feathers to retain heat, and you've got a seasonally adjusted bird. Winter dining is then a matter of finding the seeds, buds and catkins that remain.

Ruffed Grouse

Bonasa umbellus
"ruffed," and either "tame" or "good when roasted"

Description: Chunky, 16 to 20 inches in length, wingspan 20 to 25 inches, weight 1 to 1.5 pounds. Gray-brown back, light breast.

Habitat and Range: Early successional habitat. Much of Alaska, Canada, northern Rockies, northeastern U.S. and Appalachians.

Reproduction: Elaborate courtship drumming. 8 to 14 eggs, 24-day incubation, young precocial.

Viewing Tips: Listen for drumming in spring and look for drumming logs/stumps showing fecal matter and feathers.

"In the winter in South Carolina," says Michael Hook, the SCDNR's small game program leader, "grouse utilize rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets in oak/hickory forests on a regular basis, and will often use the buds and leaves as a food source. They will also eat beech, birch and cherry buds, acorns, wild grapes, and the leaves and fruit of greenbrier."

Only a fortunate few of us can expect encounters with them.

"South Carolina is at the southernmost portion of their range," says Hook, "so they are just barely found here. They like early successional habitat or young forests in the highlands, so primarily they're found in the upper reaches of Oconee, Pickens and Greenville counties."

Conventional wisdom says they live above 2,000 feet in elevation, but Hook can cite plenty of anecdotal evidence of grouse at lower elevations. The Watson-Cooper Heritage Preserve has been called "the throne room for the ruffed grouse," although Hook says, "the few grouse hunters we have, or, as the old-timers call them, ‘partridges,' are quite tight-lipped about their hunting spots."

Grouse hunters are "a very small but passionate, rather fanatical group - and I mean small. There aren't many folks willing to put in the effort to hunt grouse in South Carolina, where a good day may be flushing a couple of birds and possibly getting a shot at one."

Figures from a 2005 survey estimate a breeding population density of five males per square mile, and a 1990 SCDNR study, says Hook, "estimated a hunter would have to go eighty hours before killing a bird, so it's not exactly thrill-a-minute hunting!" In Pennsylvania, by contrast, a 2008 study reported "the flushing rate increased from 1.25 birds per hour of hunting to 1.42, the best since 2001."

Regardless, this is a magnificent creature. The grouse is a mid-sized bird, eighteen inches or so in length, with a two-foot wingspan. It's plump, with mottled feathers of gray, brown, black and buff. Though it's not colored for flash — it wants to dine unobtrusively on insects, small invertebrates, fruits, seeds and berries in the underbrush — the male turns spectacular when it's time for mating. Male birds in general use color, strutting and the like to drum up interest among females, and the ruffed grouse's presentation is among the most dramatic. He finds a stump or fallen log on which to stand (you can tell them by the presence of feces and feathers), ruffles his black neck feathers, fans his tail and flaps or "drums" his wings in a back-to-front motion that begins slowly and builds in speed, creating a drumming sound that attracts females. He is defending a territory of from five to twenty acres and may mate with several females.

Each female nests in a shallow depression next to a fallen log or amid low branches, laying from eight to fourteen cream-colored eggs in leaf litter and incubating them for about twenty-four days. The chicks leave the nest soon after hatching, following their mother and learning to feed. She covers them with her wings at night, and may feign injury to draw attention from them at a sign of danger. Grouse use hisses, peeps, clucks and chirps to communicate. The young eat insects and spiders, and quickly move to an adult diet, with leaves and shoots in the spring, and fruits like blackberries and blueberries in the summer.

As with any young bird, life is precarious and most will not make it to adulthood. Pretty much everything likes ruffed grouse. Its predators include foxes and coyotes, hawks and owls. They are also susceptible to diseases and parasites, to extreme weather, and to hitting tree trunks or branches when flushed suddenly.

In the fall, the young disperse to find their own territories. Females are known to travel up to fifteen miles to new home ranges. Once a male finds a drumming spot, he will stick close for the rest of his life.

Grouse were plentiful in the 19th century. Audubon remarked on the huge numbers of them in the Ohio River Valley in 1820 and said they were sold in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh markets for as little as twelve and a half cents a piece. He said the grouse "far surpasses as an article of food every other land-bird which we have in the United States, except the Wild Turkey, when in good condition." Nothing has changed, according to author and outdoorsman Jim Casada, who says, "When it comes to fine fare on the table, properly prepared grouse takes a back seat to no type of game."

It's worth noting that management for grouse and other species favoring recently deforested or burned-over areas, abandoned fields and the like is on the rise.

"There has been a renewed interest," says Hook, "in the early successional habitats throughout most all habitats, and that carries up to the mountains as well. Folks are realizing these young forests are just as important as old growth and that they provide different habitats that are quite important to a whole host of species that thrive in their environments."

That bodes well for the future and for those of us who crave exposure to wildlife, although the grouse is feathered proof that wild creatures, like wildlife watchers, are not created equal. Appreciation of some species takes effort, knowledge and stealth, and this is one of them. Sometimes you'll find the ruffed grouse along the edge of a country lane, but more often they're in thickets where we hear more often than see them. That, however, is a great excuse for a long walk in the country, hoping to earn the sight and sound of one of these little marvels that can more than brighten a day in any season.

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