Blane Klemek column: Minnesota's grouse species cover various landscapes
Two years ago I got the wild idea of finding an active ruffed grouse drumming log somewhere in a nearby woods in order to film its resident male in action. I knew of several likely places, and so I began my search. It didn't take me long to locate a drumming male.
In the midst of a dense stand of young aspen trees was a drumming ruffie, this I knew. My problem, however, was finding his drumming log before he could skedaddle. Even so, I was confident that if I was quiet enough and patient enough I would be able to sneak close enough to the drumming bird and spot him on his log before he spotted me. Or so I hoped.
Each time he drummed, which is about every three to four minutes for all male ruffed grouse, I'd move a few yards closer; the thinking being that the activity of drumming - the noise, commotion and so on -would preoccupy him and perhaps cause him to be less observant than usual.
Before long, I saw my bird, and watched him slip off of his log and scurry away. Yay! Upon arriving at his drumming log and examining it, I could clearly tell it was indeed his drumming log because it was littered with fresh droppings.
Soon afterwards, I had my camouflaged hunting blind set up a dozen yards from his drumming log and a camera mounted on a tripod. And it didn't take long after that for the "Drummer of the Woods" to return. It was a hoot. See for yourself by visiting this web site to see my footage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?vZ168RxK8QaI.
We Minnesotans are lucky to have four species of grouse living in our state's diverse habitats. All adult grouse and their relatives are renowned for their thunderous sounding "takeoffs" into the air when they flush. Short rounded wings, typical of these birds, produce the loud and explosive flight. Many a startled hunter, hiker and birder can attest to such attributes!
Spruce grouse inhabit primarily spruce forests across the northernmost regions of Minnesota. A docile bird often tolerating close encounters with humans, the bird has thus acquired the not-so-endearing nicknames "fool's hen" or "fool's grouse."
A darkish, yet striking looking 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 their wings beating against the air during courtship and territorial displays.
As already mentioned, ruffed grouse, which are the most widespread and abundant of Minnesota's grouse, are also the most recognized species. Like the spruce grouse, "ruffies" are birds of the forest. But unlike spruce grouse, ruffed grouse prefer mixed deciduous forests.
Aspen trees are the most important forest type for Ol' Ruff -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."
Male ruffed grouse perform territorial displays that are similar to spruce grouse, but with a notable difference. Choosing usually a log or stump to stand on, a male ruffie 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 John Deere tractor. This "drumming" is most often performed in the springtime during territory establishment, though sometimes is performed in the fall as well.
Another grouse species, the 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, because of modern agriculture, fire suppression, and encroachment of trees onto preferred open landscape habitats, sharp-tailed grouse abundance is greatly reduced from their former numbers. Still, "sharpie" populations in Polk, Clearwater and Beltrami counties remain relatively stable.
Each spring sharpies gather in large groups on dancing grounds or "leks" where males perform courtship dances to attract mates. With pointed tails held erect, wings extended to the sides of their bodies, feet stomping rapidly and emitting an assortment of clucks and coos, male sharptails dance like no other bird you know of.
Another "prairie" grouse is the greater prairie chicken. This special bird is fairly abundant throughout locations in Polk County and has also been found recently in open areas in northern Clearwater County. Pioneers once 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," as they're called. Located in prairie habitats in Minnesota's northwest, prairie chickens depend on grasslands for survival.
Truly, Minnesota's native grouse - spruce grouse, ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens - belong to a distinctive group of birds that have special and individual needs. From spruce to aspen and brush to grass, four remarkable species of grouse can be observed as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.