In the last six weeks before writing this column, several ruffed-grouse hunters have told me that they fear we’re in for another bad grouse season this fall.
They base their worry on the rainy meteorological pattern in June and into early July, because long rainy periods for six weeks causes high mortality for grouse-chick broods that often perish from exposure during prolonged periods of inclement weather — bad news for serious bird hunters come fall.
In recent years, veteran grouse hunters know that the absence of grown chicks in fall creates far slower shooting, because mature grouse do not create a dense enough population for fast action without the addition of the current year’s brood birds.
Also, birds younger than a year old are less wary of hunters, whereas older grouse have a doctoral degree in evading shooters.
The late Gordon Gullion, a wildlife biologist in the midwest revered for his ruffed-grouse knowledge, claimed that a wet season in June and into early July does no harm to grouse chicks if the mothers have fed on nutritious forage through the previous winter.
So according to this grouse researcher, low-nutrition food in winter creates the problem, not early summer rain.
Gullion’s comment seems like semantics — like saying the plummet off a 10-story building kills no one, but hitting the ground causes the fatality.
In short, a well-fed mother in winter eliminates the problem that rain causes small, vulnerable grouse chicks. Even with rain, a mother with proper winter nutrition allegedly has high brood survival.
Michael Furtman’s “Woodland Drummer — Ruffed Grouse,” a wonderful book on this bird, names 11 subspecies of B. umbellus, and in Maine, our grouse fall into the St. Lawrence subspecies, not the eastern subspecies, the former a more northern ruffed-grouse subspecies also known as Canada ruffed grouse.
Maine grouse average about 11/2 pounds, are 17 inches long and sport a 22-inch wingspan and belong to a gray-phase subspecies as opposed to the reddish-brown of the more southern subspecies.
I strongly suspect that the St. Lawrence grouse evolved to adapt to cold weather better than the eastern subspecies that resides in a warmer climate.
St. Lawrence grouse live in Maine, New Hampshire, Quebec, the Maritimes, Midwest, Ontario and Manitoba, but eastern grouse inhabit from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania.
Some folks think “ruffed” comes from the word “rufous” that describes the reddish-brown phase of this species, but that would be wrong.
The word “ruffed” describes the feathers circling the neck that become erect when something excites these birds, and the feathers resemble a ruffed collar that was popular on clothes during the 1600s when British and European subjects were naming the fauna and flora in the New World — hence “ruffed grouse.”
Ruffed grouse have a symbiotic relationship with two poplars (aspen) on the North American continent — trembling aspen and large-toothed aspen.
This grouse inhabits no range on this continent that doesn’t have one or both of these poplars.
These poplars offer ruffed grouse two crucial, winter-feeding features:
• The flower bud on the males of these two poplar species contains high amounts of minerals, fats and proteins that get this grouse through the white season of scarcity. In the other three seasons, grouse can eat hundreds of foods.
• Poplars have sturdy limbs clear to the tips, so grouse can easily perch on them while feeding without fluttering and working, as they do on more slender limbs of other tree species that make this bird expend great energy while foraging — such movement attracts avian predators.
Mainers who have watched immature grouse sit on a birch limb to feed in late fall and winter see firsthand what a nuisance and danger it is for this bird to sit on a slender, bouncy birch limb to feed. Grouse flutter like mad to keep their balance, drawing predator attention.
Observant birders can determine the sex of ruffed grouse by looking at the dark bar near the outside edge of the tail fan.
On females, the two middle feathers (called retrices) have a more fuzzy, dark band that breaks the continuous black line, while the male’s band remains dark and clear without the interruption in the middle.
Exceptions to the sexing rule do exist, though, and in my youth, people believed that a fuzzy line band in the middle always denoted a female. Some males have the fuzzy break in the bar, though.
Where grouse see few to no hunters, they are extremely trusting — so folks often call them fool hens. Where hunting pressure is intense, though, these bird are uncanny in their ability to escape hunters.
Anyone who does not believe in evolution should start studying ruffed grouse. It turns folks into believers of Darwin’s studies.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at: