A brown, chicken-like bird with a fan-shaped black-banded tail and black “ruffs” on the sides of the neck.
Of course, I write of the ruffed grouse, a permanent resident throughout the deep woods of Minnesota from the southeast to the northern half of the state, excepting the northwestern tier of counties. With the coming of winter, these birds grow comblike rows of bristles on the sides of their toes, converting their feet into snowshoes. When there is enough snow they may dive into a snowbank to keep warm at night.
In spring, a male ruffed grouse stands on a long stump, or boulder, raises the tuft of feathers on his head, fans his tail feathers and drums with his wings to claim its territory and to attract females. The drumming sound comes from cupped wings moving in the air, not by a pounding of the chest or the log. With each wing beat, the resulting compression of the air produces a low thump that can be heard a half-mile away. Beginning with a steady thumping rhythm, the grouse speeds faster and faster and then abruptly stops. And then it begins again. The drumming can continue for hours throughout the day, and it could go on for half the night, too. An individual male ruffed grouse will return to the same log or stump day after day for drumming.
The drumming by the ruffed grouse is one of the most mysterious sounds of the forest. It may be mistaken for distant thunder or the rumbling of a gasoline engine. It’s the love song and, at the same time, a warning to would-be rivals. Heard most frequently in spring, the main drumming period lasts from late February or early March until June. Drumming is not uncommon in the fall and, at times, in winter.
Now in March, ruffed grouse can still be seen up in aspens and other trees, feeding on buds. Their other foods include catkins, seeds, wild fruits and insects.
Jim Gilbert’s Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. He is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.