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Blane Klemek column: Ruffies are plentiful and remarkable birds

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Blane Klemek column: Ruffies are plentiful and remarkable birds
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

"Why does a happy boy holla? Why does a lonesome youth sigh? They don't know any more than Redruff knew why every day now he mounted some dead log and thumped and thundered to the woods; then strutted and admired his gorgeous blazing ruffs as they flashed their jewels in the sunlight, and then thundered out again," wrote Ernest Thompson Seton in my beloved boyhood book, "Wild Animals I Have Known."

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Indeed, one of my favorite year round Minnesota resident birds is the ruffed grouse. A plump and cryptic little fellow, the birds' thunderous flight, the males' loud springtime breeding ritual and the joy of hunting a worthy and challenging quarry, puts "ruffies" near the top of my bird list

Ruffed grouse are common and widespread birds that occur throughout North America. From Alaska through Canada, the Rocky Mountains, the Midwest, the Appalachians and most of the eastern seaboard states, no other species of grouse are as abundant. Even in the Great Plains, pockets of suitable habitat supports ruffed grouse in such states as North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and central Montana.

Also sometimes called "partridge," especially by older woodsmen, the ruffed grouse is possibly best known for the unique drumming behavior by only the males of the species during the spring breeding season, and, to a lesser extent, during autumn.

Interestingly, other species of grouse, such as prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse, spruce grouse, blue grouse and sage grouse performs and produce distinctive breeding displays, sounds, and dances, too, but none produces the incredible "drumming" sound and behavior as do ruffed grouse.

With drumming generally beginning in March and peaking in April to May, during, as Seton describes, the "Pussywillow Moon," the male ruffed grouse generates the incredibly loud and thumping sounds by beating his wings against the air.

He chooses a secluded spot in dense thickets, always on top of a fallen log or stump, and, while standing erect and using his fanned-out tail as support, extends his wings and beats them hard against the air, slowly and deliberately at first, and culminating with a rapid series of wing beats followed by a resting period. Many people liken the sound to an old tractor. Indeed, the "drummer in the woods" sounds just like an old John Deere.

Drumming has a purpose, of course. The sound serves as both a territorial call to other males to stay away, and as a calling card for hens. You might say the male is trying to "drum up" a mate.

Many years ago at my home in Becida, I videotaped a most fascinating grouse display. I watched in amazement as a male ruffed grouse strutted around my yard, in turkey-like fashion with its tail feathers fanned, as it displayed his splendor to a pair of hens that happened to be perched on the swing set.

Though the male never drummed, his displays were impressive nonetheless; but what occurred next was even more surprising. As a deer came out of the woods to munch on a few green blades of grass, the male grouse promptly approached the grazing deer and began strutting! Every time the deer moved, the grouse would tilt his fanned-out tail in the deer's direction. Not once did the deer pay the confused grouse the slightest bit of attention.

Ruffed grouse spend their entire lives in a relatively small area, providing suitable habitat exists. This can be in as little as 40 acres. And suitable habitat must contain a component of aspen, preferably in all growth stages. Young saplings provide the dense shelter that hens prefer for nesting and raising their broods, while male flower buds from mature aspen provides essential food for the grouses' survival.

Aspen forests, along with other hardwoods, fruit and nut-bearing deciduous trees and shrubs, and herbaceous plants often associated with the aspen forest type, provide additional food and shelter. Such plants as birch, ironwood, oak, hazel, serviceberry, dogwood and other fruit- and nut-bearing plants, are critically important for grouse survival throughout the year.

The cyclic nature of a grouse population is somewhat of a mystery. While indeed it is true that ruffed grouse numbers fluctuate and seem to peak every 10 or 11 years, the mechanisms involved in population peaks and valleys are not entirely understood.

One interesting theory involves, not surprisingly, the grouse's favorite food, aspen buds. Aspen apparently emits a toxic chemical that may help to protect itself from being fed upon, effectively discouraging foraging grouse. Other foods may not serve the ruffed grouse as well and thus, a population crash ensues.

Still, other factors must be considered. Predation of nests by mammalian furbearers, aerial predation from raptors and the severity of winters and the lack or abundance of snow all affect grouse populations.

Hunting, as with many species of animals, does not add to the birds' natural mortality, which can exceed 55 percent of the entire population annually. Hunting actually increases the life expectancies of the birds surviving the hunt and promotes higher reproductive rates, sometimes both.

The ruffed grouse is a grand and wild bird of the woods. From their peculiar habit of diving into snow to escape the wind and cold of severe winter weather, to their thunderous flushes from thick cover, to the males' drumming on top of their favorite logs or stumps, the ruffed grouse is truly a remarkable bird.

Knowing that such a unique species of bird exists in Minnesota's woodlands all year long is yet another reason to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Bemidji wildlife biologist. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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