There are very few sounds in the woods that bring your whole being into focus, but when a grouse thunders off of a spruce limb located just behind your right ear you tend to think of nothing else. Usually you whip around just in time to see a black-barred flash dodging through the alders with six trees in the way.
The ruffed grouse has been in this area for over 25,000 years with parts being found in the remains of predators going back to the Pleistocene period. A close relative of the hazel hen found in Europe, the grouse (Bonasa umbellus, for you Latin fans) was a staple part of the Native American diet for hundreds of years. Although their numbers varied from year to year, they were one of the main food sources for early pioneers.
Unfortunately for the grouse, expansion by the settlers intruded so heavily on the habitat of the birds that they soon became nonexistent in many areas. At first when the pioneers opened up the forests with small agricultural plots the fringe areas benefitted the birds. But as farms started to denude both valleys and mountain sides, there was no place for them to hide. You only have to look at the old pictures of New England to see how the forests were simple leveled for building materials, firewood, and pastures for sheep and cows.
In addition, more and more people relied on others for food. The era of the market hunter began with commercial shooters filling the market place with wild game. Grouse were so prized that they brought as much as $2 apiece in the late 1800’s. By the early 1900’s there was a marked change in the way the public viewed market hunting. State after state started to realize the devastation this was having on the wildlife.
At about the time market hunting was outlawed, there was a notable crash in the population. Although our scientific methods of inquiry were quite crude by today’s standards, a fellow named Woodruff concluded in 1907 that disease, bad weather, over hunting and predation were the main causes. In 1924 Dr. Allen of Cornell discovered that there was a stomach worm called Dispharynx spiralis that could cause an epidemic in the grouse populations. This could account for the tremendous peaks and valleys in the populations.
In the late 1930’s and into the 1940’s every New England state was studying these birds. It was concluded by them all that even if the habitat was held in a steady state, natural occurrences beyond the influences of man account for the wide fluctuations in numbers.
The birds range from Georgia to Nova Scotia and California to the Yukon Territory. They are a fairly large bird, weighing in between a pound and two pounds. They have a wing span of about two feet, a prominent fan tail that stands up about 5-7 inches and have very strong legs. Although they do fly, they prefer to walk. They have a heavy beak for feeding.
Nature tends to provide. In the case of the grouse, they grow little appendages on the sides of their toes in the winter. They are called snowshoes. These allow them to walk better in the snow. These appendages are shed in the spring.
In about March of each year the males find some open hardwoods, select a log upon which to stand, and starts to drum. The drumming log is often used year after year. The grouse grabs onto a spot on the log with his feet, rises up a bit and pounds the air with his wings. It is like he is flying but going no where. Slow motion cameras reveal that the wings go upward and forward, but hit nothing. As their speed increases through the air the movement makes a very loud drumming sound that can be heard a long way in the woods.
The females that are ready to breed come to the sound. In an oddity of nature discovered by Dr. Allen in 1934, even though he drums and the female comes, the male bird may not be ready to breed. There is a small window when both birds are ready. The male bird is weird during this time. If he is not ready he will repel even females by shaking his head back and forth and emitting a hissing sound. As he get more and more worked up his head will shake back and forth faster and faster until it is a blur of motion. He then stops and attacks the intruder!
In April the hen locates a nesting sight on the ground usually at the base of some structure. like a tree trunk. . She fluffs out a cavity and fills it with leaves and down. She will lay as many as a dozen eggs over a two week period. The eggs hatch in about 24 days. If the nest is destroyed in the first two weeks there is a high probability that the hen will renest.
Just as soon as the eggs hatch and the little ones dry out, the hen gets them out of the nest for their first trek. They do not go back to that nest ever again. From then on she simply finds a place and hunkers down with all of her youngsters underneath her. She leads them to a spot where there are a lot of insects. At first she catches them for the chicks, but very soon they are foraging for themselves.
At two weeks they can sort of fly and by the third week can stay airborne with a fairly long flight. It is at this time they are most vulnerable to hawks. By the midsummer almost half the flock will be dead. It is considered a good year when the broods have four or more members by September. The English Setter comes to a point. He is as steady as a rock. His nose is just sucking in every bit of scent he can find. The hunter approaches from behind and whispers “whoa” to his dog. A flash of brown, a pounding of wings and a shot is fired. A single feather floats to the ground. She lives to see another day.