Saturday, January 25, 2020

An Unusual Encounter With A Ruffed Grouse

ruffed grouse by richard gastClose encounters with wildlife have always fascinated me. But the behavior of wild animals can be, at best, difficult to understand and, at times, totally unpredictable. I once grappled with a robin who returned year after year, only to spend the entire summer flying into my office window in a seemingly endless war with its reflection.

Just last month, I was outside beside the woodpile, getting ready to bring in some firewood, when a male ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) stepped out from under a small spruce tree, fearlessly strutted right up to me, and steadfastly stood there on the ground, literally underfoot. I was actually afraid that I’d accidentally step on him.

Now, I’ve always thought of ruffed grouse as being at least somewhat human-averse. But he just hung out there clucking and cooing and attentively watching me work. At one point, he even flew up and perched on the side of my wheelbarrow.

Once I’d loaded the barrow with firewood, I took hold of the handles and headed back toward the house, figuring he’d leave. Much to my surprise however, he elected to walk right beside me all the way to the door and stand right there while I brought the wood in. When I stepped back outside to put the wheelbarrow away, he continued to follow me around, like a puppy, until I went back inside.

A short while later, I opened the door and looked around, but didn’t see him anywhere… Until I stepped outside and walked a few feet into the yard. There he was, sitting on the roof almost directly above the door. Sure enough, he flew down and landed on the ground right beside me.

I quickly ran into the kitchen, grabbed some greens and a small handful of split peas (I’d been soaking them for soup) and returned to the yard. I put the greens on the ground and he ate them. I held out my open hand with some of the peas in it and, much to my surprise, the tenacious little visitor plucked away at them. He wasn’t at all distrustful. I put the rest of the peas on the ground beside him. And he ate them, too.

Later that day, my neighbors had a similar encounter with the same bird, while shoveling snow.

The following morning, when I headed outside to fill the bird feeder, he was pecking around on the ground breakfasting. I crouched down beside him, offered him some sunflower seeds, and he took them from me.

I was enjoying the contact and appreciating just how approachable the bird was; or at least appeared to be; when he did something completely unexpected. Without warning, he jumped up into my face, flapping his wings around my head. I never felt like I was in danger, but I realized that, although on the surface everything appeared very friendly, it really wasn’t. This seemingly tame ruffed grouse was, in fact, a wild bird establishing its territory.

Pectinatons from Harpers Young PeopleRuffed grouse are extremely well-adapted to winter. They have feathers that partially cover and insulate their legs. And, as temperatures fall, they grow feathers around their beaks, which cover their nostrils, enabling them to breathe-in warmer air. They grow tough, thickset bristles, called pectinations, from their toes. These pectinations, which improve their ability to walk across snow and grip icy branches while perched and feeding, fall off in the spring.

Ruffed Grouse feed on nutrient-rich buds found in the thinner branches of deciduous-tree crowns. And because they have uncommonly large crops (pouches where food is stored and later supplied to the gizzard for digestion), they consume enough food to provide energy for an entire day or night in minutes; unlike many birds (e.g. chickadees), which must forage persistently, throughout the day.

When snow-cover is minimal, ruffed grouse roost in stands of conifers, which offer shelter from the wind. But, as snow deepens, they burrow or, perhaps more accurately, plunge into and bury themselves in, the soft, deep snow and drifts, which provide insulating protection from extreme cold and may also reduce the risk of predation.

Despite declines in their numbers over the past 40 years, ruffed grouse are still common in New York, particularly in younger forests. They are challenging quarry; popular with hunters who anticipate one that, as they approach, will explode out of the snow and rapidly fly off, dodging trees and darting through thick cover.

Habitat that provides adequate cover and food resources can greatly increase ruffed grouse survival. By patch-cutting to create young forest thickets with high stem-density, and/or favoring mixed-aged groves of aspen, spruce/balsam, and birch, forest landowners can establish grouse habitat within their woodlots. Because young stands of trees are important for both cover and food, grouse populations are higher in areas where prescribed logging and/or other disturbances create early-succession forests. As sunlight reaches the ground, the new herbaceous growth may provide ample forage for deer, as well. Populations of Ruffed Grouse are lower in mature forests and in small patches of woods surrounded by agricultural lands.

Photo of Ruffed Grouse by Richard Gast, and Illustration of Pectinatons from Harper’s Young People; Harper and Brothers; 1889, Vol XI – No. 537 253.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

12 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    When you are hungry, handouts are appreciated only until you have a full belly.

  2. Suzanne says:

    Great story. I frequently encounter grouse on my annual walk up Baxter — once I met a hen with a flock of little chicks, who were quickly hustled away by their mom. But last summer I saw a male grouse walking around our plateau in Keene Valley, which I found unusual, as grouse don’t often come out into an open field such as ours. He stalked and scratched around and grazed for a while before he wandered back into the woods. One wonders whether your grouse might have been one of the young ones released by the DEC, and was less afraid of humans?

    We had a robin who pecked at one of our livingroom windows (and pooped all over our porch railings, goldarn it) I think he may have been trying to get at the flies inside, but being a birdbrain myself, I can only guess his motivation.

  3. Last weekend here in the Northern Adirondacks, after the Saturday snow storm, I had two encounters with Ruffed Grouse. I was gathering some birch bark on my property, wearing snowshoes, and had one explode out of the snow, literally under my foot. Later, while cross country skiing, I had another blast out of the snow as I skied is something to experience.

  4. Stephen O Wilson says:

    Great, instructive story. We see a single female wild turkey, who appears quite tame, although she has not approached us yet.

  5. Chris Ratliff says:

    They taste good to!

  6. Larry Conley says:

    I had a similar experience with a grouse a few years ago when we lived in a rural area outside Syracuse. That fall he followed me around while I did chores for a few days, even perching on the generator frame while I worked on it, until he too suddenly flew up and beat me about the head with his wings. The following day he kept pecking my feet while I tried to put the snow tires on the car. I finally caged him under an old milk crate so I could finished. He didn’t like it much and took off like a shot when I let him out. He hung around pecking at the house windows and attacking the cars coming up and down the driveway for a few days, then he disappeared. Got some video of him. We named him Groucho.
    Read up about it later and apparently it’s not unusual behavior for young males establishing territory.

    • Suzanne says:

      This is mating behaviour. One might look into this further. Years ago, my parents and I were driving up to KV to cut our Christmas tree, and near Chapel Pond my father saw a grouse killed on the road. It was still warm. Never one to decline a gift, Daddy picked it up and we went on to our freezing camp, closed for the winter, and my mother plucked the bird and roasted it for dinner. I was 8 years old, and the parents gave me a little glass of brandy, too, and it was heaven. We stoked up the old wood stove and slept in the kitchen, because the rest of the house was a giant refrigerator. I’ve been all over the world since then, and I’ve et in fine French restaurants, but this was the best and most memorable dinner I’ve ever had.

  7. Fred Stetson says:

    While descending from Vermont’s Mount Mansfield, and walking to a nearby town, I encountered a few small, furry grouse. One at a time, they popped over a dirt road in front of me. With the flight path of mortars, they went only about 10 yards before flopping down into a field of standing hay. Suddenly, I looked up and mama grouse was coming after me at eye level with her beak wide open. I ducked, and she flew off into the hay. Ever since, I’ve had a lot of respect for grouse.

    I often wonder whether turkeys crowd out grouse and compete with them for feed?

  8. Bob Gray. Schroon Lake says:

    I was mowing the lawn last summer and noticed this bird in the driveway. He had been around for 2 or 3 days. While weeding in the garden he was getting bolder. He began pecking at my leg. The next day the grandkids were over they loved it! A pet bird at Grandpa’s!
    All was ok until it started hanging out on the back porch! Brushed it off the porch. After lunch with the grandkids, there it was again sitting on the porch. Waiting for us. We chased it off the porch but it became apparent that it was beginning to claim it’s territory! My oldest grandchild, 6 years old, and I secured a cardboard box and attempted to catch it. No luck. We got some bread from Grandma and began feeding him. It would take it from our hands. After several try’s we got it by putting some in the box. I put the box on the floor of the backseat of my car. I instructed my grandson to keep his feet on the lid and do not let him out! As we drove about 2 miles away…I kept insuring that he was keeping his feet on the box….and what would happen if he got out. The bird never seemed to mind the temporary confinement. My grandson did as instructed. I stopped the car and again instructed him to keep his feet on the box lid until I got to him. I opened the backdoor and carefully lifted out the box, and together we opened the lid….out it ran and Into the woods. The best part was the adventure with my grandson!

  9. Keith G. Tidball says:

    Here’s an interesting piece regarding wild turkeys and grouse –

  10. My husband and I had a close encounter with a ruffed grouse who hung out with us at a beaver dam for an hour, then followed us out of the woods. I could have picked him up, though didn’t try. I interpreted behavior as territoriality (rather than tameness), mainly because he jumped at my hand much like some roosters jump at people (and that is definitely a sign of aggression, not tameness). I got part of this encounter (including the jumping) on video which can be seen here:

  11. Cynthia says:

    I live in Minnesota and my husband and I were fortunate to have many encounters with a ruffed grouse we named Gary.
    We never fed him intentionally (he would eat bird food we put out for other birds). He was definitely establishing territory as he would for a lack of a better way to describe it : he would bodyslam the back of our legs! He would charge at the wheelbarrow he often came when called. my husband was not a fan as Gary would circle him and whine incessantly for hours at a time and often interfered with what my husband wanted to get done like chopping wood. Despite his challenging behaviors albeit natural to him, I was quite smitten with Gary?. I have many videos on YouTube with him. We noticed Gary in the spring of 2019. My husband seriously wanted to relocate him and I told him that under no conditions could that occur for one I love Gary and two that’s illegal as it is a wild animal and he is only doing what is natural to him. My husband learned to coexist with him and I learned all different things about him and his behaviors. Although my story is not much different from anybody else’s I wanted to warn everybody that they do charge. and charge at motors and anything being pushed, such as a wheelbarrow and vehicles. We were always very careful however despite how careful we humans can be, very serious and sad situations can occur, as did with our ruffed grouse Gary. He charge the snowblower, there was nothing my husband could do, Gary was so quick. Gary was doing what Gary does he just didn’t know . I am still so sad and this happened a couple weeks. ago. So please be as careful as you can

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