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Blane Klemek column: Grouse in Minnesota are special and varied

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outdoors Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

A while ago I wrote something while thinking something else. I had written about the "whirligig" swimming style of the American avocet. Thankfully, Mr. Bob Bellig from the Bemidji area caught my mistake and took the time to write me. Thanks to him, I can now set the record straight!

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I honestly meant to write Wilson's phalarope instead of American avocet, but why I didn't I guess I'll never know for sure. Indeed, it's the Wilson's phalarope with the crazy swimming style, not the avocet. As Mr. Bellig so accurately described, "Avocets sweep their head side to side, but phalaropes really do "whirligig." Thanks again, Bob!

So, onto another favorite species of bird -- or in this case, a group of birds: Minnesota's native grouse.

Grouse belong to a large family of birds, Phasianidae. Turkeys and the non-native ring-necked pheasant are also members of this family. Grouse chicks and other phasianids, though covered with down and capable of moving about when hatched, are unique from other precocial youngsters of other species of birds such as ducks and geese.

Newly hatched grouse-like birds develop functional wing feathers within their first week of life, yet are only about a third grown. Compare that to ducks and geese that are without flight feathers until adult size and fully feathered. Having flight feathers at such an early age is important for ground-dwelling birds like grouse in order to escape predators.

All adult grouse and their relatives are renowned for their thunderous sounding "takeoffs." Short rounded wings, typical of these birds, produce the loud and explosive flight. Many a startled hunter, hiker or birder can attest to such attributes.

Spruce grouse, as their name implies, are birds of primarily spruce forests across the northernmost regions of Minnesota. A docile bird often tolerating close encounters with humans, the spruce grouse has thus acquired the not-so-endearing nickname "fool's hen" or "fool's grouse."

A striking, darkish bird with white bands across its breast and colorful heads, the male of the species struts turkey-like by fanning its tail feathers. Loud "claps" are produced from the wings as they beat against the air during courtship and territorial displays.

Ruffed grouse are the most widespread and abundant of Minnesota's grouse. Like the spruce grouse, "ruffies" are birds of the woods. But unlike spruce grouse, ruffed grouse prefer mixed, early successional deciduous forests.

Aspen is the most important forest type for ruffs; young, sapling-size aspen provide suitable brooding habitat, while nearby mixed, mid- to older-aged forests provide nesting and feeding sites. Alder and hazel also make excellent sites for food and cover. The name "ruffed" comes from the long and dark feathers of the neck. A displaying male extends these feathers to produce the showy "ruff."

Sometimes called the "drummer of the woods" (I just heard my first drummer on March 22!) male ruffed grouse display in similar fashion as spruce grouse, but with a notable difference. Choosing usually a log or stump to stand upon, a male will use its tail to prop and support himself as he begins a series of wing beats against the air. The muffled thumps, starting slow and culminating in a loud and rapid series of wing beats, sound like an old tractor. This "drumming" is most often performed in the springtime during territory establishment, though sometimes is performed in the fall as well.

Ruffed grouse are well adapted to Minnesota's four seasons. Fringed toes serve as snowshoes for walking on snow and as grips to hold onto slippery aspen branches while feeding on buds. And like the spruce grouse, ruffies roost comfortably underneath snow when conditions allow and temperatures are cold. Two common body color phases, red and gray, are common to ruffed grouse. However, their tails are another story; up to 58 variations of gray, brown and red.

Sharp-tailed grouse are birds of open grassland and brush country. Suitable habitat exists primarily in northwestern, east central and northeastern Minnesota. At one time "sharpies" were the most popular and plentiful upland game bird in the state. However, due to intensive agriculture, fire suppression and encroachment of trees onto preferred habitat, sharp-tailed grouse numbers are greatly reduced.

But many populations do exist across Minnesota, with some areas in the state showing stable and slight increases in numbers of birds. Furthermore, efforts to improve habitat is under way by natural resource agencies, conservation organizations and private citizens.

Each spring, sharpies gather in large groups on dancing grounds or "leks" where males perform courtship dances to attract mates. With their pointed tails held erect, wings extended laterally, stamping feet and assorted clucks and coos, male sharptails look and act like wind-up toys. As many as two dozen or more males and females will gather on traditional leks if the grounds are undisturbed from the year before.

Another "prairie" grouse is the greater prairie chicken. Pioneers had observed countless numbers of both prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse on the expansive grasslands long ago. Like sharptails, prairie chickens gather in large groups on their traditional "booming grounds" throughout prairie grassland habitats in western and northwestern Minnesota.

Booming grounds refer to the males' incredible booming sounds created from inflating their bright yellow-orange air sacs on the sides of their necks. The hoots and moans sound eerie. Like sharp-tailed grouse, the performances are generally conducted at dawn to attract hens. Males erect special neck feathers, called pinnae, during their foot-stamping musical courtship displays. These amazing displays can be viewed each spring in Wilkin, Becker, Clay, Norman, Mahnomen and Polk counties, to name just a few.

Indeed, Minnesota's four species of grouse, each with their own unique and individual needs, belong to a very special and varied group of birds. From spruce to aspen and brush to grass, four remarkable species of grouse can be observed and appreciated as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com,

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