One Saturday morning looking out my window, I noticed something wandering along the fence outside my house. Worried it was one of my chickens that had escaped, I grabbed my binoculars. But instead of a chicken, I saw a brown and white bird with a tuft on his head. As I watched him making his way, pecking and discarding all but the tastiest of scraps, two more of the birds emerged from the brush. The ruffed grouse were back.
I live a few miles down Highway 12 and about a mile back in the woods in Lolo. We have a small property on a north-facing slope, but we're surrounded by forest filled mostly with Douglas fir and ninebark. We've been there for a few years, and we've been lucky enough to watch the ruffed grouse spending time on our lawn in the fall and spring, often eating the last remaining leaves from my gardens after the first frost in the fall.
Ruffed grouse are medium-to-large birds, about the size of a chicken. They have a long neck, a crest on their heads, and are brown and white, their cryptic coloration making them hard to see. The "ruffed" part of their name comes from the prominent feathers on the male's neck that are on display during mating. Often when my dog and I are out walking, the first sign that we've seen a grouse is the deep sound of wings flapping, followed by an eruption of feathers in front of us. In Montana, we have ruffed, spruce, sharp-tailed, and greater-sage grouse (in the eastern part of the state), and dusky grouse, although the ruffed grouse, with their plain, brown and white plumage and roadrunner-like body are the kind I see the most.
Ruffed grouse are solitary, although in the fall and winter, small, loose groups of juveniles may temporarily form. Males are territorial, and may defend an area of six to 10 acres. This area usually contains one to two hens. Males drum throughout the year to defend and announce their territory. A male will stand on top of a rock, a mound of dirt, or a log, about 12 inches off the ground, where he can see off into the distance and beat his wings against the air to create a vacuum. Drumming is more frequent in the spring when a male is working to attract a female, and it's hard to walk in the woods in Montana without hearing that distinctive booming sound in the spring.
Ruffed grouse are an important game bird in Montana and across the U.S., found in 38 of the 49 contiguous states. Management efforts focus on maintaining early to mid-successional habitats, since grouse eat buds, twigs, catkins, some insects, ferns and leaves, and prefer mixed deciduous forests with small clearings. Their winter diets consist of dormant buds and catkins.
Since ruffed grouse must survive harsh Montana winters, they have some fascinating adaptations. To enable them to walk on the snow in the winter, grouse grow pectinations, or protrusions of cartilage off of their toes. This increases the surface area of their feet, allowing them to act as snowshoes so the ruffed grouse can get around more easily on the snow. On the rare occasions that my dog tries to chase grouse, he doesn't have a chance - the grouse will stroll away on top of the deep snow leaving the dog frantically flailing in the drifts.
Ruffed grouse also dive into deep snowbanks to spend the night. Often the only sign of this will be a hole in the snow, and, if you're lucky, a few tracks where the grouse emerged and went about the day. Spending the night in a hole in the snow offers a warmer shelter than being exposed to the elements, as snow, especially new snow, is a good insulator, and will help keep the grouse warm. When you're out hiking on a snowy day, it's worth taking the time to look for these holes in the snow and the subsequent tracks left by the grouse. If you're really lucky, the mound of snow will explode in front of you as the grouse emerges in a less-than-subtle way.
As fall draws to a close, and winter becomes a stark reality, I'll continue to see grouse outside my house and check twice before opening the door for my dog to make sure they yard is clear and they are safe. Like last year, it appears one of the grouse has made a winter shelter in our wood pile, and we'll use the logs around that area until spring, when he heads off to the woods in search of better food than that in my yard.
'Field Notes' is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.