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Ruffed Grouse Facts

Sonia Nair
The ruffed grouse is the state bird of Pennsylvania. It is a hardy bird that thrives well despite the harsh weather in its natural habitat.
The ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is a ground-dwelling, non-migratory bird, which is found in Canada and the United States. The bird derived its name from the neck ruff (tufts of feathers) that is more prominent in males, who display it during courtship.
There are around 14 species of ruffed grouse, which belongs to the genus Bonasa and family Phasianidae. Here are some interesting facts about the characteristic features and adaptations of this bird.
The ruffed grouse is a game bird that belongs to the order Galliformes that includes terrestrial birds like turkeys, quails, chicken, partridge, and pheasants. The members of this order are ground feeders with heavy bodies. Usually, these birds walk or run, but they may also fly short distances. Males are colorful and slightly larger than females.
The ruffed grouse is smaller when compared to other types of grouse. The bird is found in forests, especially mixed woodland rich in aspen, poplar, and birch. It is often seen in between the dense undergrowth. During winters, the ruffed grouse spends its time in snow burrows and treetops.

Characteristic Features

The bird has a head crest, a fan-like tail, and tufts of feathers on the neck.
When it comes to the main features, the ruffed grouse has dense feathers on the neck (ruff) and a broad, black margin on its tail. The black tail band is uninterrupted in males, but females have a lighter patch in the center. Both sexes have feathers on their legs and most of them have a crest on the top of their head.
Sometimes, the head crest may lie flat. Generally, males are found to be larger than females, and the former have larger ruffs and longer tails, as compared to the latter. The size of an average adult ruffed grouse can be compared to a medium-sized chicken.
Small feathers cover its nostrils, so that the cold air becomes warm, before it inhales.

Gray Morph and Brown Morph

The bird has a mottled plumage, which can be brown, gray, or buff-colored. The plumage color is lighter on the ventral side, especially the lower breast and belly. In these regions, the plumage may have a barred appearance. There are two color morphs - gray and brown.
The gray morph has a mottled gray plumage and the brown morph has a reddish-brown plumage. While the tail band and neck ruff of the gray morph are grayish-black, in the brown morph, they are reddish-brown.
The brown morphs are predominantly seen in the humid and warmer southern regions, and the gray morph inhabits the cooler high altitudes of the northern parts of their range. Some birds have both colors on their plumage. Such intergrades are very common, when compared to the typical morphs. The plumage plays a major role in camouflaging.

Gray morph

Brown morph

Male and Female

An average adult ruffed grouse grows to a maximum length of around 20 inches and a body weight of up to 1.5 pounds. Gender distinction is often done by checking the broken tail band in females. While females have a single white dot on their rump feathers, in case of males, each rump feather has more than one white spot.
Males have an orange patch above their eyes, and this feature is less prominent or absent in females. Even the head crests and tails are shorter in females. The ruffed grouse chick is whitish-gray or tan-colored, and resembles the hen till it grows into an adult.

The male is slightly larger

The female has a shorter tail

What do Ruffed Grouse Eat?

The ruffed grouse feeds on plant as well as animal matter. In fact, it consumes a wide range of foods, and this is considered an adaptation that helps the bird to thrive in its habitat. The ruffed grouse feeds on leaves, buds, catkins, fruits, seeds, insects, worms, and invertebrates.
During winters, the bird eats aspen buds, which are considered highly nutritious.  Trees like poplars, birch, ironwood, cherries, and alders too provide food for the ruffed grouse. During spring, its food consists of the tender leaves of various plants, shrubs, and trees. The ruffed grouse likes rose hips, clover, strawberries, grapes, blueberries, etc.
Fruits and seeds are consumed during summers. Sometimes, this bird eats frogs, lizards, salamanders, and even snakes. However, ruffed grouse chicks mainly feed on insects.

Behavior and Breeding

Courtship Display:

The ruffed grouse is highly territorial. Male birds establish their territories during early spring, as the snow starts to melt. They are well-known for their elaborate courtship display. The males perch comfortably on rocks and logs, and beat their wings.
The sound of their wing beats resemble drum beats that can be heard from long distances. They also raise their ruffs and fan out their tails, to woo females. While drumming is more frequent during the mating season, males drum at other times to defend their territories.
The male ruffed grouse indulges in an elaborate courtship display that includes beating wings.

Nesting and Parenting:

A male may mate with several hens, but it has no role in nesting or parenting. The hen lays 8 to 14 pinkish-brown eggs, that hatch within 20 to 24 days. The chicks accompany the mother for around three to four months and get dispersed after this period.
Usually, young birds are dispersed from the family during early fall and they find their own territory. Unlike other game birds, the ruffed grouse is mostly solitary. The only exception for this is the mating season. The ruffed grouse spends its entire life in the same area.
The hen makes a shallow depression in between the fallen leaves on the ground. The nest is lined with leaves, feathers, and pine needles.
The female is solely responsible for nesting and parenting.

Snow Burrows:

During winter, the ruffed grouse is often found perched on tree branches, feeding the buds and catkins. In order to hide from predators, this bird buries itself in snow. This burrow provides enough warmth to the bird, as snow acts like an insulation.
Sometimes, the inner temperature of the burrows can be 25 to 40 degrees higher than the outside temperature. During winters, the ruffed grouse develops fine spiky protrusions along the edges of its toes, so that it can walk on the snow easily. These structures are shed during spring.
During winter, the bird burrows into snow to escape from the extreme cold.
Hunting of ruffed grouse is very common and rigorous in the United States and Canada. It is a source of lean white meat with a delicate flavor. In the wild, this bird may live up to eight years.
Though the population of the ruffed grouse fluctuates over the years, it is not considered a cause of concern. The bird has been listed under the 'Least Concern' category by the IUCN.