SCIENTIFIC NAME: Bonasa umbellus
OTHER NAMES: Partridge
DESCRIPTION: The ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is one of 10 species of grouse native to North America. Ruffed grouse are the most widely distributed gallinaceous bird in North America. Gallinaceous birds are heavy bodied, chicken-like birds with short rounded wings and relatively long legs. They are excellent runners but only capable of quick short bursts of flight. Turkey, quail and grouse belong to this family. Ruffed grouse are between the size of a bobwhite quail and a turkey. The grouse measures 16 to 19 inches in length and weighs 17 to 25 ounces. The name “ruffed” is derived from the male displaying long shiny neck feathers extended into a spectacular ruff when defending his territory or during mating activities. Ruffed grouse occur in two color phases. The “reddish” form is found in the more southern areas and lower elevations while the “gray” form is found in more northerly areas and higher elevations. The nostrils and the feet are covered with feathers for existing in colder climates.
DISTRIBUTION: Ruffed grouse are the most widely distributed game bird in North America. They occur in 38 of 50 states and in all of the Canadian Provinces. They are generally rare below 1,500 feet in elevation in the southeast portion of their range. In Alabama, ruffed grouse once were found as far south as the William B. Bankhead National Forest. They are now primarily restricted to the southern end of the Cumberland Plateau in northeast Alabama.
HABITAT: The ruffed grouse is a woodland species dependent on early successional forests, which are dominated by shrubs and young forest, six to 15 years old. They need an interspersion of woodlands, thick brushy areas and woodland openings.
FEEDING HABITS: Grouse are omnivorous, feeding on leaves, buds, fruits, insects and the occasional reptile or salamander. However, during the winter they feed almost entirely on fruits and buds of trees. Chicks feed almost entirely on insects during the first few weeks of life, gradually shifting to plant materials.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Ruffed grouse are normally solitary and do not form a pair-bond between males and females. Males will aggressively defend a territory and will mate with several females. In late March and early April, males attract females by “drumming” the air with rapidly beating wings. The muffled thumping of the wings starts slowly, then accelerates into a whir. Male grouse will choose a “drumming log,” which could be a fallen log, boulder, or any other object which permits him to be elevated above the forest floor. The drumming is repeated every four or five minutes throughout daylight hours. After mating, the hen grouse will choose a nest site on the ground, usually near the base of a tree. The nest is a depression, about six inches in diameter, lined with leaves and body feathers. She will lay nine to 14 eggs in approximately 17 days, visiting the nest only to lay eggs, until the clutch is complete. Once the last egg is laid, the hen begins incubating them for approximately 24 days. She will only leave the nest a few times a day to feed. Nesting success averages about 60 percent. The chicks are precocial – fully covered in down, with the ability to walk and feed upon hatching. They immediately follow the hen from the nest to start feeding, almost entirely on insects. After about 12 weeks of age, the young begin to disperse.
Bump, G., R. W. Darrow, F. C. Edninster, and W. F. Crissey. 1947. The Ruffed Grouse: Life History, Propagation, Management. New York State Conservation Dept. Holling Press, Inc., Buffalo, NY. 915pp.
Davis, James R. Game Birds of Alabama, Number 2, The Ruffed Grouse. Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Game and Fish Division, Wildlife Section. Montgomery, AL. 4pp.
Johnsgard, Paul A. 1973. Grouse and quail of North America. University of Nebraska, Lincoln. 553pp.
Sargent, M.S and Carter, K.S., ed 1999. Managing Michigan Wildlife: A Landowners Guide. Michigan United Conservation Clubs, East Lansing, MI. 297pp.
AUTHOR: Jim Schrenkel, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries