The ruffed grouse is a native game bird, somewhat smaller than a domestic chicken, which lives in forested habitats throughout New York State including much of the Finger Lakes Region. Also called a partridge, the ruffed grouse roosts in trees at night and spends its days foraging on the ground. It can easily go unnoticed by the casual observer because its mottled feathers provide excellent camouflage that blends in perfectly with the bird’s surroundings. If approached, it usually runs and hides but when it is flushed, the ruffed grouse can explode into the air in an unexpected burst of flight that can startle even the most seasoned hiker or hunter. In flight, the grouse easily maneuvers through the thickest tangle of brush and timber, but it seldom flies very far.
Ruffed grouse do not migrate and live their entire lives within just a few acres. They prefer wooded areas that have been recently logged or fallow farm fields that have reverted to forest. They are sometimes found along the edges of seasonal roads and farm lanes ingesting small bits of grit or gravel, which aid in the birds’ digestion. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), ruffed grouse are common in the state—particularly in younger forests—and provide excellent hunting opportunities. Successful hunters are rewarded with a sumptuous gourmet meal. Considered by many to be a wilderness bird, the ruffed grouse sometimes resides in close proximity to people if the habitat provides adequate food and security.
Like all birds, the ruffed grouse mates in the spring. And like the wild tom turkey, the male grouse performs a mating ritual that is intended to attract the attention of any nearby hen. But unlike the tom turkey, which uses a vocalized gobble to call to hens, the male grouse makes a drumming sound instead by rapidly beating his wings against the air to create a vacuum while perched on a drumming log or tree stump. The sound has been described as being similar to someone trying to start an outboard motor that refuses to start. It begins with a slow, staccato wing beat that increases in intensity, speed, and volume. You can hear it from sunrise to late morning. In addition, the tom turkey and the male ruffed grouse both perform a choreographed strut of sorts with tails fanned and wings stiffened. The dances are also meant to impress nearby hens. In both species, the vain male birds sometimes become so preoccupied with their theatrics that they can be oblivious to cautious intrusion.
The term “ruffed” comes from the long, shiny, black cape-like neck feathers that are most prominent on the male grouse. When he is in full display, either defending his territory or showing off for a hen, these feathers extend into an impressive ruff, which—together with his raised head crest, extended wings, and fully-fanned tail—make him look almost twice his normal size. The male ruffed grouse is intensely territorial so it’s not uncommon to hear drumming at any time of the year. But it occurs most frequently—a dozen or more times an hour—during the spring mating season.
Like wild turkeys, ruffed grouse hens nest on the ground, leaving their eggs at risk of potential predation by coyotes, foxes, and raccoons. The bowl-shaped nest is made from leaves and lined with vegetation. Most nests are built at the base of a tree or stump and provide a clear view of the surrounding area. An average clutch of a dozen eggs results in a single brood per year and chicks become mobile as soon as their feathers dry shortly after they hatch. The typical ruffed grouse diet consists almost exclusively of fruits, insects, seeds, and vegetation.