Ol' Ruff. Partridge. Thunder Chicken. The Drummer. Woods Pheasant. Nicknames are terms of endearment, thus the ruffed grouse has a lot of them here in Minnesota. Because of its high regard as a game bird and prevalence, it probably should be the state bird. Loons are only part time dwellers, anyways.

Despite a thinning crowd of hunters (see story by Bill Marchel), I'll attest, as a three-year sufferer, that once infected, the ruffed grouse bug is hard to shake. 

While the weather and withering leaves are reason enough to hit the wooded trails for this weekend's grouse opener and subsequent three and a half month season, the spectrum of colors isn't limited to the fall foliage.

According to the Ruffed Grouse Society, ruffies have two or more body color phases (grayish or reddish brown) , while their tail feathers vary even more in  color. In fact, 58 different variations in tail color have been documented in the upper Midwest, broadly lumped in four categories – silver (gray), intermediate gray, brown and red.

Minnesota, Wisconsin and Upper Peninsula grouse hunters probably notice more silver/gray phased birds finding their game bags. That's because this phase is more common where winter climates are severe. Red phased grouse become the norm in milder climates. On the PacificCoast from Washington south, and from New York south in the Appalachians, nearly all ruffed grouse are red phased, the Ruffed Grouse Society says. And where the color phases overlap, approximately half the hens will end up being "split" phase, with the two central tail feathers much redder/browner than the rest of their tails.

These breakdowns aside, I've noticed a relatively even split in color phases in my hunting party's take during my brief career. I've seen both phases north of Duluth and as far south as Pine City, as well as in Michigan's UP. The UP is where the birds in the photo were taken (one each by me and my brother, Sean) in the same forest. So perhaps that comment about loons was out of line – autumn rolls around, and I'm only a part time dweller, too.

The Mysterious Ruffed Grouse

  • Answering the "where" of color phases doesn’t answer the "why," and I haven't tracked down that answer yet. For a bird that's found in approximately 80 percent of the states/provinces in North America, the grouse remains mysterious. Populations of the bird boom and bust on a 10-year cycle, and biologists can’t explain why that happens, only that it happens.
  • Grouse flushes are thunderous, but it cannot fly long distances and tops out at about 20 miles per hour. To put that in perspective, pheasants' flying speed is typically 27-38 miles per hour (60 mph when chased) and the Canvasback duck can rev it up past 70 mph. After takeoff, grouse usually travel less than 100 yards.
  •  I'd always thought the best way to identify grouse sex was to look at the band near the end of the tail feathers, but the best method is actually measuring tail length. Across most of its range, a fully grown tail feather over 5-7/8" in length usually belongs to a male; less than 5-1/2" to a hen, and birds in between can be either male or female.

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