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Blane Klemek: The ruffed grouse: A challenging bird for hunters

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The ruffed grouse is a special bird. Considered by many a hunter as the most challenging of upland game birds to hunt, Minnesotans can boast about living in the premier ruffed grouse hunting state. Indeed, with abundant aspen, hazel, and alder and mixed deciduous-coniferous forests — components that make up ideal ruffed grouse habitat — the annual ruffed grouse harvest ranges anywhere between 250,000 to one million birds.

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Each year about this time ruffed grouse hunters are looking at the calendar in anticipation of the opening day of Minnesota’s small game hunting season — this year falling on September 14th. Whether hunting alone on an isolated wooded trail, or with a favorite hunting dog, or with a group of family and friends, it’s hard to beat time spent outdoors hunting ruffed grouse.

Sometimes called the “drummer of the woods,” it is only the male ruffed grouse that is the true “drummer.”  Normally choosing a log or stump to stand upon, a male “ruffie” will use his tail to prop and support himself as he begins a series of rapid wing-beats against the air. The muffled thumps, starting slow and culminating in a loud and speedy series of wing-beats, followed by a brief resting period, sounds very much like one of those old John Deere tractors.

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. The drumming behavior is most often performed during the springtime breeding season — as it was when I heard it for the first time — though sometimes is performed in the autumn as well.

The ruffed grouse spends its entire life in a relatively small area (as little as 40 acres), providing that suitable habitat exists. Good grouse habitat must contain a component of multi-aged aspen or “popple” trees. Young aspen saplings provide the dense shelter that hens prefer for raising her broods, while male flower-buds from mature aspen trees provide essential winter food.

Aspen forests, along with other hardwoods, deciduous shrubs, and herbaceous plants often associated with aspen woodlands, provide additional food and shelter for ruffed grouse. Such plants as birch, ironwood, oak, hazel, June berry, dogwood, and other fruit and nut-bearing plants, provide food and cover for grouse throughout the year.

A ruffed grouse’s diet is varied, to say the least. I remember a time when I brought home three grouse that I harvested from three different locations in a favorite hunting area of mine. As I field dressed the birds, I examined each of their crops (a muscular pouch near the throat where food is temporarily stored) to observe what they had been foraging on.

One grouse’s crop was full of rose hips, another was filled with dogwood fruit, and the last bird contained a potpourri of food items, including bits of aspen leaves, highbush cranberry, and hazel buds. In all three cases, we learned not only what grouse like to eat, but where to find them as well.

Another interesting fact about grouse, is the cyclic nature of their abundance. While it is true that ruffed grouse abundance fluctuates and seems to peak every 10 or 11 years, the mechanisms involved are not entirely understood.

One interesting theory involves the grouse’s favorite food: aspen. Aspen apparently emits a toxic chemical that may help to protect itself from being fed upon, effectively discouraging foraging grouse.

Despite the challenges ruffies face, these extraordinary grouse are well adapted to Minnesota’s four seasons. Fringed toes serve as “snowshoes” for walking on snow and as grips in order to hold onto slippery aspen branches while feeding on buds. And when wintertime temperatures plummet, and the snow is deep enough, ruffed grouse spend the nights beneath the snow in snug little burrows.

A widespread bird inhabiting much of North America, ruffed grouse can be found in Alaska, throughout Canada, the Rockies, the Midwest, the Appalachians, and most of the eastern seaboard states. There are even pockets of suitable ruffie habitat in such states as North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and central Montana. Still, no other state produces more ruffed grouse than Minnesota.

I’ve so many splendid memories of observing and hunting this fine, adaptable, and interesting native woodland bird. From times afield in the seasons of spring watching and photographing drumming males, to the countless occasions I’ve walked and hunted within their special haunts.

In hunting grouse, I’ve fired from my scatter gun round upon endless round after their hasty flushes only to come up empty handed. Five times as many birds, maybe more, have evaded my game pouch than have ever ended up in my frying pan — this I am reasonably certain of.

“Ol’ruff” is a grand and wild native bird. From their peculiar and resourceful habit of diving into snow to escape the wind and cold of wintertime, to their thunderous flushes from thick cover, to the males’ territorial drumming on top of their favorite log or stump, the ruffed grouse is the one and only Minnesota native drummer-of-the-woods 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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