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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Ruffed grouse are busily drumming once again

The actual thumping and drumming that I mistook as a tractor all those years ago, is produced by male ruffed grouse. It is typically associated with early spring as the snow begins to melt.

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The partridge that my dad told me about is — I later learned — none other than the ruffed grouse. My grandpa Klemek called the pudgy chicken-of-the-woods "PAT’ridge" and I did, too, for a while. Gradually I came to call the bird by its rightful common name: ruffed grouse
Pioneer file photo

I was 11 years old when I first heard the sound. Exploring our woods north of the barn during a sunny April afternoon, I remember stopping what I was doing to listen. The repetitive thumping was as curious a sound as I had ever heard.

Yet despite my initial curiosity, I dismissed the sound as nothing more than our neighbor’s popping and chugging John Deere tractors west of our farm. Alas, I would later learn, the “tractors” could be heard in other woodlands, too, not just ours. And furthermore, as my dad pointed out, the sounds I heard in the woods were not tractors after all: the sounds were partridge!

Partridge?

The partridge that my dad told me about is — I later learned — none other than the ruffed grouse. My grandpa Klemek called the pudgy chicken-of-the-woods "PAT’ridge" and I did, too, for a while. Gradually I came to call the bird by its rightful common name: ruffed grouse, but sometimes, affectionally, "ruffy," "ol’ruff," or just plain "grouse."

A favorite author of mine, Burton Spiller, who wrote passionately about good friends, hunting dogs and the scent of autumn woodlands while hunting grouse, called the ruffed grouse "King” in obvious deference to the magnificent game bird that ruffed grouse are.

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The actual thumping and drumming that I mistook as a tractor all those years ago, is produced by male ruffed grouse. And though the drumming occurs throughout the year, even in the middle of winter sometimes, it is typically associated with early spring as the snow begins to melt.

Thus, it is during this important time of year that male ruffed grouse begin advertising their presence and defending their individual territories.

The late Gordon Gullion, a wildlife research biologist who dedicated his professional life to studying ruffed grouse, coined a male ruffed grouse's territory as its "activity center." Without question, a drumming grouse is at the very center of frenzied activity. Drumming, however, is a somewhat misleading term, especially to a novice; for nothing is struck ... nothing is beaten ... nothing, except of course, thin air.

Essential for drumming to commence, a male ruffed grouse must have a decent perch on which to perform. His tail is fanned and used as a prop to hold himself securely to a favorite drumming log or stump. He utilizes his tail in much the same manner as a beaver does with its broad and flat tail. Beavers stand upright to gnaw on trees, and their tails help keep them upright, balanced, and secure.

Leaned back on his tail, a male ruffed grouse begins to forcefully strike the air with its wings in snap like fashion. The technique produces a vacuum and loud "thump" sounds are produced with each subsequent wing snap. The duration between successive wingbeats is quickened, and, the entire episode, culminating in a rapid flurry of flapping wings, lasts only about five to eight seconds.

The importance of a tail during the drumming sequence is realized if it can be imagined that the drumming grouse is without a tail. A tailless grouse would be propelled violently backward by the sheer force of its own beating wings if not for the tail mooring him in place. The interval between drumming sequences is usually no more than four minutes, but sometimes as little as a minute.

The whole affair — drumming — and its intended purpose is solely to advertise to other male grouse that the territory is occupied and that trespassers should heed well. Gullion's research on the activity centers of dominant male ruffed grouse concluded that in prime grouse habitat, drumming males will be about 100 to 150 yards apart from one another with each bird occupying and defending around eight to ten acres of territorial space.

Female ruffed grouse are familiar with these activity centers, too. Large and dominant male grouse usually occupy historical drumming sites that are used time and time again. Hens in estrus visit these perennial logs and, if a resident male is present, mating will occur.

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Indeed, there's a lot of drumming going on right now in the Northwoods. Sounding a little like an antique tractor, male ruffed grouse are busily drumming once again 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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