|The ruffed grouse is the most abundant of the four native grouse species that include sharptails, prairie chickens and spruce grouse. The ruffed grouse is also called a "partridge", and is a chicken-like bird measuring about 15-19 inches from beak beak to tail with rather short, rounded wings that spread from 22-25 inches and the prominent tail that is about 5-7 inches long. Both sexes are similar, but adult males average 20-24 ounces while females are 17-21 ounces. Males also have larger ruffs, longer tails (greater than 5 7/8 inches long) and most have an unbroken band at the tip of the tail. Males have a light salmon to bright orange patch above the eye while this area of bare skin is usually pale bluish-gray or faintly tinged with orange in females. Lower back feathers also have 2 or 3 whitish dots in males and one dot in females. The grouse's body feathers are mottled brown with light underparts. The "ruff" feathers on either side of the neck are normally iridescent black, but occasionally chestnut-colored, and are displayed as a large collar about the neck on males during drumming, courtship or bas a sign of dominance or aggression. The feathers on top of the head are erected into a small crest when an intruder challenges the bird. Color of the tail feathers varies from red to brown or intermediate to gray, and these color variations may be related to differences in behavior and expected life span. The color of the broad band near the tip of the fan-shaped tail is normally black, but may be bronze, and matches the color of the neck ruffs.
Ruffed grouse are probably more prevalent today than in pioneer times, because Wisconsin forests used to be mature and grouse need a mixture of young forests. Populations started increasing when logging, fire and farming changed the habitat, creating new growth. Grouse population was probably higher in the 1940's or 1950's and have since declined. Population follows natural cycles with a peak about every ten years, always followed by a decline. The cause for this population cycle is not fully understood, but they may be a combination of variation in weather, quantity and quality of food, and predation, among other factors. It is known that higher grouse numbers can be expected in better habitat, even in low grouse years.
The ruffed grouse is well adapted for surviving Wisconsin's harsh winters. They have sturdy, down-curved beaks for eating buds and twigs of trees and shrubs, which are their staples in the winter. They have stout legs for walking or running and their feet have comb-like rows of bristles, called pectinations, which act like snowshoes enabling the grouse to walk easily on soft snow. Grouse also have excellent protective coloration that makes them blend easily into their surroundings at most times of the year.
Male grouse perform a distinctive mating ritual by "drumming", from late March to late May. Drumming is usually done on a favorite log in an area of thick brush, but rocks, log piles, root hummocks of downed trees, and a variety of other suitable surfaces will also suffice. Drumming also occurs in the summer and fall as a defense of territory by the males. While drumming, the male spreads his tail and presses it against the log, then begins a series of strong wingstrokes. As the wings compress the air, they create a vacuum to produce a thumping noise sounding like a distant motor.
It starts slowly, but rapidly increases to a drumroll that can be heard for ¼ mile or more, at approximately 3-4 minute intervals, with the greatest intensity occurring just before dawn. Drumming continues until well after sunrise and is resumed to a lesser extent at other times during the day or night. Drumming advertises the location of the male and attracts the female, after which "strutting" and finally mating occurs, with one male typically mating with several females.
A variety of foods fill seasonal nutritional needs, and the diets of the ruffed grouse are diverse. In the spring, grouse eat 98% vegetable matter, including buds and newly sprouted leaves of aspen, birch, cherry and apple trees as well as some herbaceous plants. As they come into season, fruits (strawberry, blueberry, bunchberry and raspberry), seeds, and plant parts (sedges, clovers, violets and grasses) become mainstays in the diet. Preferred fall foods include other berries (dogwoods and viburnums), sumac, grapes and acorns. During the winter, the food of choice and perhaps necessity is aspen buds, but they will also eat catkins and buds of hazelnut, willow, beech, birch, maple and some berry bushes. Principal non-vegetative foods include ants, beetles, flies, spiders and other insects.
Grouse actively feed in the morning and late afternoon, and to a lesser extent during other times of the day throughout most times of the year. The exception to this rule is during the winter when grouse conserve energy by limiting daily activity. Following feeding in early morning and evening, the birds spend most of the time roosting. In 7 inches or more of fluffy snow, grouse prefer to "snow roost" to cope with the bitter cold winter weather. They will either burrow below the surface or fly directly into a snow bank, where temperatures may be 20-30 degrees warmer than in the open air. Adult grouse are solitary during most of the year, but may gather together in small groups temporarily in the winter to feed on preferred foods or occupy a choice patch of cover.
Ruffed grouse can fly very quickly for short distances with a startling "whirr" of wings, but they prefer to walk or run on the ground rather than fly. Grouse can accelerate to 25 miles per hour or more while dodging trees and branches, but seldom travel more than 200 yards in one flight. They have been clocked, however, at speeds of 50 miles per hour in the open, and flights of over ¼ mile have been recorded. "Crazy Flight" is a phenomenon unique to grouse, where they fly through glass windows, into buildings, into vehicles and into other strange situations. This behavior probably results in disoriented or frightened young birds flying in panic or trying to escape danger.
Grouse are susceptible to various diseases and parasites including stomach and intestinal worms, ticks and lice, although the population does not seem to be affected adversely. Predators like hawks, owls, foxes, weasels, raccoons and skunks prey on grouse, but grouse have lived with these natural hunters for thousands of years without any lasting effects on population.
Good year-around ruffed grouse habitat includes a mixture of young and old hardwood forests with thick underbrush, and young aspen forests and brushy thickets provide excellent ground cover and overhead cover, as well as a great food source. Areas covered with slash such as recent cuttings may be avoided until they open up enough to permit easy ground movement. Older forests can also provide good habitat, but they are better if they are mixed with scattered small openings or dense brushy thickets. Older aspen are an especially good source of winter food. Grouse prefer young aspen forests with dense groves of alder, hazel, dogwood or other tall shrubs. These habitats produce the highest drumming counts and are also used by nesting hens and broods.
Long-term grouse population in Wisconsin is estimated to average 1,450,000 birds with more than 2,000,000 in years of abundance. They are found throughout the state with the exception of some southeastern counties, with most of the grouse range and the greatest population of grouse occurring in the central and northern parts.
The ruffed grouse has been called the all-American gamebird, partridge, pats, ruffs, native pheasants and some unprintable names by hunters who experience the bird's uncanny talent for avoiding shotgun pellets. A good day of grouse hunting comes complete with fresh air, the scent of pine and spruce, beautiful fall colors and the smell of a dew-soaked dog. The early season hunter, in mid September, may encounter green leaves and tough hunting. Without a dog the birds take to the air from dense cover and more times than not, the thundering sound of their explosive flush is all that you get for your efforts. You can increase your odds a bit by knowing or surveying your hunting area and planning the best way to hunt it. It is always desirable to position hunters in such a way that the flushing bird will be likely to venture into some kind of opening. So instead of taking the easy stroll down that logging road, move of to the side and work your way through the brush hoping that a bird might flush across the open road offering a nice shot. Two hunters should take opposite sides of the road, while the ideal situation would be three hunters with two on either side and one on the road to do the shooting. You may find grouse banded together in an area, so when one flushes walk towards the spot and be prepared to flush more. Follow up on every shot you take at a grouse. They are experts at dodging your shot and you may find your full load in a tree trunk, or you may find a dead bird that you couldn't even see when you shot. There will be very few limits of grouse taken during the early season, and it may be tempting to drive the backroads and "groundswat" the birds. This is not ethical, not sporting and not hunting, and this wonderful bird deserves much more. Mid-season grouse hunting is the prime experience with fast action and beautiful scenery. This is the time to get your limit, but successful hunting is more than just a walk in the woods, and your odds will increase if you plan your hunt well. Try and figure out what the birds will be doing at certain parts of the day and try to hunt the areas that they will be doing it in. Open the crop of the first grouse that you are lucky enough to down and see what it has been feeding on. The odds are good that more birds will be feeding on the same kind of food and you can concentrate on those areas. Don't let the food source blind you to other aspects of grouse behavior, however, as these birds don't feed all day and they don't even feed every day. Toward midday you might want to check out gravel roads where grouse might find grit for digestion or take a dust bath, then back to dense cover for the resting or relaxing birds. Finally a late afternoon snack might be in order before heading to roosting areas for the night. Plan your hunt to keep you in the high percentage areas as much as possible for the entire day. Try to avoid long walks through mature timber and concentrate on higher densities and better shooting in thick, new growth areas. Also try to find areas away from the beaten path, where birds will hold tighter and be less spooky. Be cautious when you stop, as this is often the time the grouse will flush. The bird probably figures that when you freeze, like other predators do, you have undoubtedly seen or smelled them and they take to the air, and this start and stop hunting strategy can be very effective, especially for a lone hunter. Late season grouse hunting is not without its share of the challenges. Birds can explode into flight from overhead in the tree branches or under the fallen snow within inches of your boots. A fresh snow might give you the slight advantage of being able to track the grouse, and the hunter who follows the tracks long enough might be rewarded with a shot. Grouse also like to roost in dense pine forests, when the ground is covered with snow and the thermometer drops, giving us much the same type of hunting as the early season when the leaves were on the trees.