Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ruffed Grouse in the Road

It never ceases to amaze me - what I've seen from the front seat of my Prius.

Today it was this Ruffed Grouse, foraging in the middle of the road (Rustic Road 107) in the mixed hardwoods near Xcel Energy's Tyrone property.

While these grouse are still relatively common in Wisconsin, I've only seen four in my life.  And I remember the "when and where" for every one of them.   Today's was the second-best view I've ever had.

My best happened on a sunny fall morning in New Jersey's Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.  I was hiking up to the hawk banding station when I heard, off in the distance, what sounded like a muffled motor.  I stopped and looked around.  There it was:  a grouse on a drumming log with his chest puffed out and wings a-whirring.

The wild chicken that crossed the road today was not so dramatic - cautiously pecking at acorns crushed by passing cars.

How close could I get in my stealth Prius?

We were about 30 yards away when the bird stopped, looked our way, then exploded into the sky and disappeared into the woods.

In pre-settlement days, three species of grouse were common in the lower Chippewa River valley:  Prairie Chickens, Sharp-tailed Grouse and Ruffed Grouse.  As brushlands and prairies succumbed to the plow, Sharp-tailed and Prairie Chicken populations began to decline.   Sharp-tails disappeared around 1900.  Prairie chickens started their decline in the 1930s.  In the fall of 1932, Buss and Mattison recalled seeing a flock of 150 Prairie Chickens in Meridean.   By the 1950s they were gone.

The Ruffed Grouse survived settlement.  The logging that followed created habitat that favored them:  early successional mixed hardwood forests - with oaks, aspen, birch, hazelnuts and dogwoods.

Ruffed Grouse populations are cyclical, with population peaks occurring every 10 years or so.   Oliver Gibbs wrote one of those peak years, 1869: 

           " the month of October, these grouse were so plentiful that while one of us was  
             starting up the fire in the morning, another might take his gun, step into the thickets 
             anywhere and return in 15 minutes with enough for breakfast.  In the evening, an hour 
             or so before sunset, we could hear a noise like distant thunder occasioned by their 
             flying down from the bluffs to feed upon the birch and alder buds along the bank of 
             the stream..."

Look for them this winter, foraging on the ground and in the trees, especially aspens.  They feed on aspen buds, hazelnut catkins and buds, willow, birch and maple.

And where the snow is powdery and more than 8" deep, look for them in what's called a "snow roost."  When conditions are right (no crust on the snow), Ruffed Grouse will dive head-first into the powder and continue to burrow until they find just the right place to spend the night - protected from both winter winds and predators.

And yes, Ruffed Grouse have been known to explode up and out of these snow roosts as hikers pass by...

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