Ruffed grouse males "drum" on logs, hoping to attract a mate.
For a northern birder, spring is a great time of year. By late April the migration has begun in earnest, with plenty to spot in our skies, feeders and trees as birds return. And then there is that familiar sound echoing over the ridges of Minnesota’s Sawtooth Mountains – muffled, rhythmic thumps of wings beating against soft-feathered bodies.
Male ruffed grouse are ready to rumble, showing off their stuff and hoping to catch a female’s eye and ear.
It’s difficult to describe the thrill of hearing that first spring drumbeat. For a photographer, it resembles a starter’s pistol at a track meet, signaling the start of a race to find and photograph the first drumming grouse.
Ruffed grouse are hardy inhabitants of the dark forest, deep thickets and edges of sheltered swamps. I’ve waded through this environment, following the sounds of their amorous percussion.
Some label ruffed grouse as “stupid” – not the brightest bird in the forest. Stories of sporadic, bizarre interactions with humans earned them that moniker. I’ve heard quite a few.
One story has a grouse perching on a man’s arm for 20 minutes, while he stroked the breast feathers with his finger and the grouse kept perching and purring. They have been known to ride shotgun on a riding lawn mower or to follow an ATV on a driveway. A friend who grew up on a farm near Grand Marais said the ruffed grouse would come out of the woods and follow family members around the yard, even going so far as trailing machinery in the field. Experts call this “exhibiting a territorial imperative.” I think they may just enjoy human company.
Either way, in my encounters I don’t find them to be bird brains; the deep-woods ruffed grouse I’ve followed were wily and easily spooked.
Sometimes they are comfortable with human presence and that was the case with Rusty. I found him when I heard and followed the drumming first of three, then only one.
Ruffed grouse drum about every three to seven minutes, so I waited for the next feathered volley. The grouse was on the other side of an impassable spruce thicket, so I had to crawl on hands and knees to find him.
Like clockwork, he again began drumming. As exciting as it is to hear a drumming ruffed grouse, the first moment you see him on his log is spectacular, especially if the log is old, moss- or lichen-covered and fits the classic scene. This spot was perfect; he was facing my direction and had paused his drumming.
Almost immediately, he hopped off his log and disappeared into the forest. When this happens, it’s best to retreat. After six hours of tracking, it was disheartening to miss seeing the first drumbeat and photograph it, but I try to give the birds space, too. I could return to this log later.
The drumming log this grouse chose was about a 30-minute hike from my home. After sunrise the next day, I returned to the spruce thicket and waited. In the distance, I heard drumming in an opposite direction.
Almost immediately, a slow methodical thumping started up close to me, just beyond the spruce thicket. The drumming resembles an old two-stroke John Deere tractor starting up – an analogy that dates me. It develops slowly, then races to a rapid crescendo.
I crawled back to the log and waited. “Rusty,” as I name all the ruffed grouse I photograph, stood facing me on his log. In minutes, he adjusted his feet and slowly started his routine. I simply watched the grand sight quietly, not taking any photos. I wanted him to accept my presence in his territory and stay on his log.
I stayed and photographed him for more than an hour. When he hopped off the log to feed in the nearby brush, I left for the day with a full card in my camera. The next 10 days I observed and photographed my new friend, acclimating him to my presence. At times, I could get within a few feet of him and sit on his log, photographing as he drummed.
A female ruffed grouse, the object of much drumming, dancing and desire.
I should mention here that close proximity to a male doesn’t seem to bother the mating ritual. I’ve seen the drummer hop off a log and beeline after a hen. And ruffed grouse are polygamous; when you hear a male drumming for many days, he may have mated with more than one hen.
On the last day I saw him, I spoke to him as I left. “Rusty, have a great summer and I hope you safely return to your log next spring.”
As I turned and crawled back through the spruce thicket, something interesting occurred. Rusty trailed about five feet behind and to the side of me, following through the thicket. When I reached a spot where I could stand up, I turned and again said goodbye. He quietly headed back into the thicket and disappeared.
I never returned to the thicket that spring and didn’t see him there other years, but I like to think of Rusty basking somewhere in the spring sunshine, warming up for a commanding performance.
Ruffed Grouse at a Glance
NAME: The ruffed grouse has labored throughout its history with a plethora of names. Birch partridge, partridge, mountain pheasant, drumming pheasant and shoulder-knot grouse to recall a few. Today the ruffed grouse is still called a “partridge” by many, though it is not one.
APPEARANCE: The bird is about 18 inches long. Simplistically and arguably, the ruffed grouse has two color phases – gray and red. The gray phase is reported to be more prevalent in colder climates. I have photographed both phases in northeastern Minnesota, and usually each phase has had feathers of varied hues and tones.
NESTING: Ruffed grouse nests are on the ground and are constructed of weeds, feathers, leaves, grass and roots. I’ve spotted them alongside small spruce trees, next to cross-country ski trails and buried in dense thickets. The eggs vary from whitish through beige to a pale brown, usually without spots but sometimes lightly speckled. Ruffed grouse lay from six to 15 eggs, but average about a dozen. Chicks leave the nest as soon as their feathers dry after the hatch. A few years ago, I witnessed a mother grouse usher her “baker’s dozen” of just-hatched chicks across Highway 61. All miraculously survived the perilous journey.
FINDING GROUSE: Hiking forest trails anywhere from central to northern Minnesota offers a chance to listen for and observe the ruffed grouse. Look for them feeding on the catkins and buds in various trees and hazelnut shrubs. Many will peck along road shoulders, eating clover and grit.
David, a retired art instructor, lives in Lutsen, Minnesota, with his wife, Mary, on a ridge above Lake Superior.