It is traditional backwoods wisdom to avoid getting between a mother and her babies, and while this advice usually pertains to the black bear, it could also apply to several other forms of wildlife that reside in the Adirondacks.
In late spring many infants are emerging from the safety of their den or nest and most mothers try to provide some form of protection from potential danger to their babies. Perhaps the most remarkable display of parental courage for a creature of its size is seen in the hen ruffed grouse. This bird will aggressively confront and challenge any human that happens to come too close to its recently hatched chicks.
In April, the ruffed grouse typically constructs a nest in a slight depression on the forest floor near a sizeable tree trunk, stump or fallen log that prevents it from easily being seen from several angles. Additionally, the hen selects a site in which there is a high concentration of saplings, or an assortment of other ground clutter that discourages animals from wandering through that particular patch of forest.
The hen takes 2 weeks to lay her clutch of 8 to 10 eggs before she begins the three and a half to four week process of incubating them. Because incubation does not start until the clutch is complete, all of the eggs hatch around the same time on the same day. As soon as the hatchling’s plumage has dried, the birds instinctively leave the nest and begin to peck at the ground for food. At this early stage of development, invertebrates that live on and just under the leafy matter carpeting the soil composes over 90% of their diet. Such a protein enriched diet allows the chicks to develop the body tissues needed for their rapid growth.
While a glut of small bugs often exists on the forest floor at this time of year, weather conditions can impact the availability to the chicks. During a prolonged dry spell, many invertebrates that live on the ground temporarily migrate into the upper layer of soil to prevent dehydration. Even though the chicks are able to scratch down through a layer or two of dead leaves, they do not dig down far enough to uncover the bounty of bugs seeking refuge from parched conditions on the surface. Likewise, an excessively rainy period can saturate the soil enough to displace many of the bugs that reside there. During those occasions when food is scarce, the hen relocates her brood to places where foraging conditions are better.
Along with an abundance of bugs, adequate cover is another factor that the hen considers when selecting a foraging site for her brood. Because the chicks lack the ability to fly for most of their first month of life, they are easy targets for all of our woodland predators. Places of dense cover are particularly favored in June and early July, as sites covered with thick vegetation offer protection not only from ground attacks, but also from aerial assaults. The goshawk, along with several other birds of prey, is known to kill young grouse whenever they are seen moving about the brush below.
Should a fox, coyote, weasel or other ground carnivore detect a collection of foraging chicks, the hen will quickly fly in front of the stalking intruder and land a short distance away feigning a wing injury. This tactic can distract a predator long enough for the chicks to run deeper into the patch of cover in an attempt to escape from the sight of their attacker.
A human that happens to come too close to a grouse family will be immediately confronted by a very angry hen. With head held high, its crest fully raised, her plumage puffed out, and her wings held outward and slightly downward to create the impression of a much larger and fierce looking creature, the hen will repeatedly make ugly-sounding hissing noises and appear as if she is ready to launch an attack.
As the chicks instinctively recede into the brush, and more from the immediate scene, mom eventually retreats into the brush, going in a different direction in an attempt to confuse any individual that may attempt to follow her. She will take a very circuitous route back to her babies and continue to search for bugs.
Encountering a flock of very young grouse at this time of year can be very exciting, especially if the hen decides that you are getting too close to her babies. If conditions become overly dry, there is the possibility of greater movements of grouse families, which could lead to a most unforgettable wildlife encounter here in the Adirondacks.
Photo: Ruffed Grouse (Courtesy Commonwealth Foundation).
Just last month my husband and I were strolling down the dirt road leading to our lake house near Pitcairn when we were attacked by a Ruffed Grouse. We have seen and heard Grouse hundreds of times before but apparently never at this time of year. It was very scary, that little bird never backed up, just kept hissing, squawking. We tried to get around her but every movement was met with another round of ruffled feathers and hissing. Just as quickly as she appeared she ran into the underbrush and was gone.
We laughed all day about the experience and how even though I had my camera on my wrist the whole time I was so shocked by the attack I never took one picture. Thanks for the article answered a lot of questions.
1975 was the year. I was about 5 years old and walked down our driveway toward the ausable to go fishing. Trust me when I say that a ticked off hen resembles an F-16 with eyes when she’s bearing down on you in full flight, at least to a 5 year old. My scream brought up the neighbors in a panic. They thought I fell from a tree. If I listen closely, I think i can still hear the grouse laughing at me!
By 2008, I’d grown up a bit :), and got between a hen and chicks near the Cold River and Noah Rondeau’s old hermitage site. It was interesting watching a less aggressive hen feign a broken wing and flop around the ground. If I changed my gaze back to the chicks, who were heading off on a perpendicular heading under the cover of some logs and brush, she’d add some energy to her act and renew the convulsions etc. Very, very interesting. I let her think she was a good mother and fooled me well.
I’ve been on the receiving end of both instinctual strategies that the ruffed grouse deploy to foil predators – the aggressive, intimidating “hiss” attack, and the far more common “broken wing” ruse. If you haven’t been “hissed” at by a ruffed grouse, you haven’t lived. It is truly impressive and scary – which is what the intent is.
Just a few days ago, in the Catskills, I was treated to two broken wing displays by two different momma birds – but I also noticed that their chicks were now flying – so less of a problem when they can’t. They’ll be on their own soon enough.
My thoughts went immediately to the same memory in 1975. Remember the terrible scream! thought for sure something awful had happened to you. Mom & Dad
Hiking yesterday at Mt. Stratton in Vermont and was met with the hissing display, my 10 year old sun was the target, we were getting off the mountain due to thunder storm, so I stepped between my son and the hen as he was mortified. The hen changed target and then took off to our right. We rounded the trail to our left and watched the chick fly off. I tried to explain to my sun that they would meet back up and am showing him this article tomorrow to help explain. I thought it was late in the year for this but that is the power of family. Thanks for adding this to our education.