This winter has been a good one for grouse. At least in the tracking sense it has been a good one for grouse. Almost every day I have found fresh grouse tracks in the woods, along the roads, down driveways. I’ve even flushed a couple of the birds, their thunderous take-offs turning a few more hairs white, but mostly it’s their tracks I’ve seen.
The ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is one of two grouse species that call the Adirondacks home. The second is the spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis), which is an uncommon boreal species found in only a very few pockets within the Park. Therefore, I will stick to the ruffed grouse in this piece since that is the one most readers are likely to encounter.
Ruffed grouse are so called because of the ruff of dark feathers they have on either side the neck. Both the males and the females sport this ruff, which is raised when the bird is excited, making it look like a feathered version of Elizabethan royalty. Knowing what I do about the starched lace ruffs worn by the nobility of Western Europe back in the mid-15th to mid-16th centuries, I think I’d prefer the feathered ruff of our native bird.
Winter is the best time, in my humble opinion, to go looking for grouse, for it is at this time of year that we can find where they have been (these birds are famously shy and very well camouflaged), and we can experience some of their more interesting traits.
For example, by the time winter has rolled around, the ruffed grouse has grown special projections along the sides of each toe. These fringe-like growths give the grouse a leg up in winter, for they increase the surface area of each foot, effectively creating snowshoes that will keep this short-legged bird from wallowing in the deep north country snows. And since snowshoes are not needed in the summer, the projections wear off during the spring, leaving clean, streamlined toes for the following season.
A grouse’s foot is pretty characteristic, even without its fringe. There are four toes on each foot. A tiny toe points backwards, a long toe points forwards. The remaining two toes, each shorter than the front toe and longer than the back toe, stick out one to each side. The resulting footprint looks something like a sword with very long hilts. When the animal struts along through the snow, it leaves a rather shuffling pattern behind, which looks like nothing else in our winter woods.
I have yet to witness this myself, but ruffed grouse are notorious for roosting under the snow. They create a snow roost in a couple different ways. First, there’s the lazy bird’s roost: it just sits down and lets the snow cover it. Then there’s the clever bird’s roost: it dives headlong into a patch of fluffy snow, makes a 90-degree turn, then hunkers down facing the direction from which it just came. The latter gives the bird just that much more advantage should a predator come looking for a meal: the sharp turn in its snowy tunnel may give the grouse an extra fraction of a second to get away. Many years ago I came across a snow roost, but the grouse was long gone. This is probably just as well, for if a grouse taking wing in the summer woods is startling, imagine one bursting out of the snow at your feet!
Anyone who has gone tracking with me knows that I get very excited when I find scat. Scats are great to find, for they give you an idea of what animals have been eating. Plus, we don’t find them all that often, so that makes them even more special. Well, a couple winters ago I found some really nice grouse scats (see photo above). They are easily recognized by their color, texture and shape. However, I also found some that were rather liquidy and brown, looking more like slugs than grouse scats. I’d never seen these before and they confounded me. I put some in a baggie (when you walk a dog as often as I do, you always have baggies in your pockets) and took it to a wildlife ecologist to see if she knew what it was. Nada.
Today, however, I found the answer in one of my tracking books. It seems that grouse are one of those birds that have two kinds of scats, based on which part of the digestive tract was evacuated. The lower portion of the tract produces the tight, fibrous scats with which I was familiar. When the bird evacuates the upper portion of the tract (the cecum), the resulting scats are a darker brown and more liquidy. Often with birds who have this dual scat production, you will find piles of the fibrous scats with the liquid scats on top. The ruffed grouse, however, tends to deposit each type in its own separate pile. So there you have it – another mystery solved.
When I see a grouse standing in the middle of the road, with traffic bearing down on it, I can’t help but think it’s got to be one of the dumbest birds out there. It doesn’t bat an eye, it doesn’t run or try to fly away. It just stands there and stares at the on-coming car(s). Stick it in the woods, however, where it rightly belongs, and it is one of the cleverest and most alert birds around. Once it knows you are there, it gets out of Dodge quicker than it takes your brain to register its presence. The only times I’ve seen a grouse hold its ground in the woods is when a male is drumming on a log (its mind is clearly focused on elsewhere). Once I came across two males strutting about the ground beneath a shrub in which a hen was perched, but as soon as they got wind of my presence, all three took off deeper into the woods. So maybe it’s something about the road itself, and its inherent lack of any protective cover, that leaves the birds standing in profound stupidity, unable to decide what to do.
I’ve read several accounts of how grouse populations are declining across parts of North America. As with many species, this is due to loss of habitat. Ruffed grouse need fairly large tracts of forest, with a mixture of older and newer growth. Whether one is a hunter or a nature enthusiast, it’s kind of nice to know that with the protections put on the land within the Adirondack Park, ruffed grouse are likely to enjoy continued existence in our corner of the world.