A grouse weighs about 11/2 pounds, its body length is 151/2 to 19 inches and wingspan is 22 to 25 inches. The bird’s plumage can be a rich brown sprinkled with white and black above and white and horizontal dark brown bars on the breast and undersides. The brown phase prevails on both the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts. The gray phase of the grouse is predominant in the interior and in the North, the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains. The brownest of the brown grouse live in the coastal areas of Washington and Oregon and the Appalachian Mountains of the Southeast.
The name “ruffed” comes from a ruff of iridescent black feathers that almost completely encircles the neck.
Grouse eat many types of food. In the summer, they consume insects (which are rich in protein), blackberries, blueberries and other wild fruits, sedges and green leaves of various plants. In fall, when insects are scarce, their diet is almost exclusively plant foods, including small acorns, beechnuts, cherries, barberries, wild grapes, apples, hawthorn and dogwood fruits and various buds and leaves. Buds form the basis of the grouse’s winter diet. These come from aspen, birch, beech, maple cherry and apple. Grouse seldom starve during the winter as they are capable of “budding” (eating tree buds that are available regardless of snow depth). Ferns, green leaves and other evergreen foods are eaten until food becomes more plentiful in the spring.
Grouse may spend winter nights beneath the snow, sometimes flying directly into a soft snow bank at dusk. Grouse are not especially gregarious, although groups of birds are sometimes found together in the fall. These are usually a hen and her offspring of that year. During winter, a grouse’s feet develop snowshoe-like properties through the growth of a horny fringe around the toes.
Although its takeoff is thunderous and powerful, a grouse can’t fly long distances. Its top flight speed is about 20 miles per hour. After takeoff, it flies rapidly and then locks its wings and glides to safer territory, usually traveling less than 100 yards.
During mating season in the spring, male grouse attract females by drumming. With tail fanned, the male stands on a large, prominent log or rock and beats the air sharply with his wings. The rush of air created by his wing beats sound much like drumming. The drumming starts slowly and increases in speed, until the individual thudding beats into a fast, steady whir.
A mated hen picks a secluded nesting site, usually at the base of a tree or under a bush, and lays 6-16 white or buff eggs in a leaf-lined depression on the ground. The hen may re-nest if nest destruction occurs. The incubation period is approximately 24 days. The male does not help the female incubate eggs or brood young.
Chicks develop rapidly. At three weeks of age they can fly, and by autumn they look and act like adults. In early fall, birds of the year may exhibit a strange period of restlessness known as the “fall shuffle” or “crazy flight.” During this time, some young grouse take off in apparently undirected flight and a few are killed when they crash into trees, fences, windows or the sides of building. The fall shuffle may serve to scatter broods and expand or disperse the population.
Grouse rarely – if ever – die of old age in the wild. Juvenile mortality is great. Most grouse die before they are a year old and few live to be two years of age.
In years of good production, hunters usually take two or three juveniles for every older bird they harvest.
Populations fluctuate differently in different regions of the country, due to local cover, food and weather conditions. Grouse will not tolerate crowding.
Cover is the most important factor affecting the size of grouse populations. Cover is comprised of physical things that provide natural shelter and protection for wild creatures. Grouse need cover for breeding, feeding, wintering and especially for brooding (raising) young.