Minnesota's diverse ecology harbors several species of grouse
My grandfather, Max Klemek, used to call them "pa'tridge." And for many years I called them partridge too.
The ruffed grouse, their rightful common name, is also called many other names, some of which I've never heard of, such as moorfowl, birch partridge, wood grouse, drumming grouse, ruffled grouse, woodpile gauwkie, ruffy and woods pheasant.
All species of grouse belong to the large family of birds, Phasianidae. Turkeys and the non-native ring-necked pheasant are also members of this family. Grouse and their relatives are famous for their thunderous sounding "takeoffs;" their short rounded wings produce loud and explosive flight. Many a hunter, hiker and birder have been startled by the sudden flush of a grouse.
Minnesotans are fortunate to live where more than one species of grouse exist. Aside from ruffed grouse and their wild turkey, ring-necked pheasant and gray partridge relatives, three other "true" grouse also inhabit the state. One such grouse, the spruce grouse, as their name implies, are grouse of primarily spruce forests across the northernmost regions of Minnesota.
This docile-behaving and somewhat dense-acting grouse, which often tolerates close encounters with people, has acquired the not-so-endearing nicknames "fool's hen" or "fool's grouse." It is a darkish bird with white bands across its breast and colorful heads. Males of the species strut turkey-like by fanning their tail feathers. Loud "claps" are produced from their wings as they beat them against the air during courtship and territorial displays.
Unlike all other species of grouse in Minnesota, ruffed grouse are the most widespread and abundant. But like spruce grouse, ruffed grouse are birds of the woods, although they prefer mixed deciduous forests. Aspen is the most important forest type for ruffed grouse. 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 put on courtship displays similar to spruce grouse, but with a notable difference. Typically performed on a log or stump, a male will use its tail to prop and support himself as he begins a series of wing-beats. The muffled thumps, starting slowly and culminating in a loud and rapid series of whirring wings, sound like an old tractor or a beating drum. This "drumming" is performed in the springtime during territorial establishment, though sometimes done in the summer and autumn 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 ice-covered aspen branches while feeding on buds. And like the spruce grouse, ruffed grouse roost comfortably underneath snow when snow conditions allow and temperatures are cold. Two common body color phases, red and gray, are common to ruffed grouse. However, their tail colors are another story -- up to 58 variations of grays, browns and reds.
Another species of grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, are birds of open landscapes of mixed brush and grass. Suitable habitat exists primarily in northwestern, east central and northeastern Minnesota. At one time "sharptails" were the most popular and plentiful upland game bird in the state.
However, since the dawn of modern agriculture, fire suppression and tree encroachment, sharp-tailed grouse numbers are much less than what they used to be. But thriving populations do exist, with some areas in the state showing increases in numbers of birds.
Each spring sharptails gather in large groups on dancing grounds, or "leks," where males perform courtship dances in order to attract mates. With pointed tails erect, wings extended to their sides, stamping feet and assorted vocalizations of clucks and coos, male sharp-tailed grouse put on quite the show. As many as two dozen or more males and females will gather on traditional leks if the dancing grounds are undisturbed from the previous year.
Another species of prairie grouse is the greater prairie chicken. Pioneers coming to Minnesota observed countless numbers of both prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse on the expansive prairie grasslands long ago. Like sharptails, prairie chickens gather in large groups on their traditional "booming grounds." Located in prairie habitats in Minnesota's northwest, prairie chickens depend on grasslands for survival.
Booming grounds refer to the males' incredible booming sounds that are created from inflating their bright yellow-orange air-sacs located on each side of their necks. The hoots and moans sound eerie and, like sharptails, the performances are generally conducted at dawn to attract hens. Males erect special neck feathers, called pinnae, during their foot stamping, musical courtship displays.
I've had the fortune to observe most of Minnesota's species of grouse. To this date, however, I have not seen a spruce grouse. Although, when in Colorado a couple of years ago, I enjoyed watching a family group of blue grouse foraging only feet away.
And once, while conducting a prairie chicken booming ground survey in Polk County, I was treated with not only the sights and sounds of courting prairie chickens, but dancing sharptails mixed in with them. In addition, while this delightful sight was occurring in front of me, I heard the thump-thump-thumping of drumming ruffed grouse in the woods behind me. Three species of grouse all at once.
Indeed, Minnesota's grouse, diverse yet similar, are remarkable native birds. All of them require specific habitats in order to survive and reproduce, which, by the way, this great land we live in provides. From conifer to deciduous trees, and from brushlands to grasslands, four very 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