Ruffed Grouse and American Woodcock

For over 50 years, the Ruffed Grouse Society has been dedicated to creating healthy forest habitat for the benefit of ruffed grouse and American woodcock, gamebirds that rely upon young forest habitat for survival.

Ruffed Grouse

Ecology and Management

The ruffed grouse is North America’s most widely distributed species of grouse. Ruffed grouse are found throughout most of Canada, much of the eastern United States and portions of the Rocky Mountains in the West, yet are common only where extensive tracts of forest are present on the landscape. The name “ruffed” grouse stems from the ruff of feathers around the birds neck.

The northern extreme of the ruffed grouse range coincides with the northern edge of aspen-birch forests in central Canada.  Indeed, the range of the ruffed grouse and that of quaking aspen are remarkably similar and the relationship between these two species has been well documented in eastern and western North America.  The southern extreme of the ruffed grouse range coincides with the southern edge of the Appalachian Mountains in northeast Georgia.    Ruffed grouse are generally rare below 1,500 feet (460 m) elevation in the southeast portion of their range, although habitats that appear suitable exist in the Piedmont from Louisiana east to Georgia and north through Virginia. 

Ruffed grouse can survive and maintain relatively low-density populations in a variety of forest landscapes.  However, ruffed grouse are abundant only where young forest habitats (5-15 years old) are common.  Historically, young forest habitats were sustained primarily by fire and other disturbance events throughout the ruffed grouse range.  Today, in most regions, commercial forest management and other proactive habitat management practices must be implemented at regular intervals (approximately every 10 - 15 years) to ensure a continuous supply of quality ruffed grouse habitat on the landscape.

Ruffed grouse can be found in many different types of forest in North America, although deciduous or mixed deciduous/coniferous forests are preferred.  Quaking and bigtooth aspen forests can support ruffed grouse population densities that greatly exceed those typically attained in other types of forest, such as maple or oak.  The density of small trees and shrubs in recently clearcut or burned aspen forests commonly reach levels that provide excellent protective cover for ruffed grouse.  Riparian forests with either a deciduous overstory or a dense deciduous shrub understory are important habitats for grouse in the West.

There is no range-wide population survey of ruffed grouse, but some states/provinces monitor populations through drumming surveys.  Male ruffed grouse drum in the spring to attract females.  Drumming male surveys count all males heard in the early morning along 10- or 15-stop routes and can provide an index of local populations.  Drumming male densities typically reach one to 2 birds/100 acres (40 ha) in the central hardwood forests of the Midwest and the central and southern Appalachians, as well as in northern hardwood forests in the northern tier of states.  The aspen forests of the Great Lakes region and southern Canada can support 4–8 drumming males/100 acres (40 ha).

Ruffed grouse populations exhibit a 10-year cycle throughout the northern portion of the bird's range.  Populations south of the northern tier of states in the United States do not consistently exhibit detectable 10-year cycles.  Population trend data are insufficient throughout much of the west to document the presence or absence of a cycle. 

Habitats used for nesting appear to be variable; nesting hens can be found in a wide variety of habitats, although commonly in forest habitats that are older and more open than those frequented during other times of the year.  Relatively open habitats may be selected for nesting because they allow the nesting hen to visually identify potential predators at a distance, which aids the hen in drawing predators away from the nest as she feigns injury - a common tactic. 

Ruffed grouse broods are seldom found far from dense young cover.  Quality brood habitat often includes small forest openings with a substantial shrub component.  These habitats can provide abundant insects, which is an important source of protein for growing chicks during their first 4-6 weeks of life. 

Ruffed grouse use a wide variety of foods throughout the year.  Succulent herbaceous vegetation is consumed whenever available.  Berries and other forms of soft mast provide forage in the fall.  The flower and vegetative buds from a variety of tree and shrub species constitute the primary winter food source in most regions.  The dormant flower bud from mature male aspen trees is an important source of food for grouse in winter and early spring where aspen forests are present.

During winter as throughout much of the year, dense young forest habitats provide protection for ruffed grouse.  In northern and western forests, mature stands of aspen are an important component of ruffed grouse winter habitat due to the buds they provide.  Densely-needled conifers or evergreen shrubs, such as rhododendron, can be important to ruffed grouse in regions where snow depths are insufficient or snow quality inadequate to allow ruffed grouse to burrow into the snow for protection from predators and inclement weather. 

In the central and southern Appalachians and elsewhere where aspen is not present or is rare, winter food availability and quality may be a limiting factor for ruffed grouse populations.  Fall hard mast crops (primarily acorns) can be a very important source of food for ruffed grouse in these regions.

Young forest habitats are by nature ephemeral.  Today, young forest habitats are created almost solely through commercial forest management – a timber harvest.  And not just any forest management, but a type called “even-age” management.

Even-age forest management requires the removal of all or most of the trees from a mature forest stand in a single cutting operation.  This results in open conditions favorable to the development of a vigorous, dense stand of young trees that are all approximately the same (even) age.  The ultimate even-age forest management method to create this type of dense young forest is a clearcut harvest.