Written by Alek Henseler, a naturalist intern at Woodland Dunes
Late spring is a time marked by rebirth of the animal world, so I should have not been surprised when I startled a mother Ruffed Grouse that had been laying on a clutch of eggs. We had been sawing and removing brush within mere inches of the bird for over half an hour when she finally decided she had enough and left in a flurry of feathers, actually clipping me in the head with her wing as she flew by. Upon closer inspection of the area the bird left, we found a dozen small brown eggs piled in a well camouflaged nest.
Afraid that we would scare the mother away from the nest for good, we worked quickly to finish clearing the brush as the Grouse watched from the safety of a nearby spruce tree, bobbing her head in annoyance. She would return within minutes of us vacating the area,
The Ruffed Grouse is a species key to the allure of the north woods, attracting hunters and bird-watchers alike. They are so much a part of these woods that conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote “The autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a Ruffed Grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the Grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.” There is a mystique surrounding these quick flighted, well camouflaged fowl that can hardly be ignored after ones first encounter.
Ruffed Grouse are ground nesters, building their bowl shaped nests — reaching up to half a foot across — in sparsely covered areas which allow a clear view of predators, however they are sometimes known to nest in hollow stumps or brush piles — as I found out.
After laying her eggs, the female will watch over her eggs for about 24 days until the chicks hatch. The chicks, which emerge from the eggs covered in a sandy brown down, will be able to walk around and feed themselves within 24 hours of hatching.
Because of their great camouflage, it can often be extremely challenging to spot a grouse in the wild. The best strategy that I have learned over my years of slogging through the swamps after these elusive birds is to look for their shape. Grouse have a very distinctive pear-shaped body that can sometimes be seen against the trunks of the spruce trees that they like to hide under. Another way to locate a Grouse is to walk in the woods in the early morning and listen for the males drumming. By forcing air through pockets under their wings, male grouse emit this thunderous thumping sound to declare their territory, I believe it to be one of the quintessential sounds of the north woods.
If you’re feeling up for a challenge this summer or fall, venture out into the woods in search of the elusive Ruffed Grouse. Often you may find them where you least expect them.