Last Thursday I cross-country skied on our trails thinking it might be the last time this year. It was below zero and there was still a nice amount of snow on the ground, but the forecast was calling for temperatures to rise into the high 40s or even 50s the next week. I’m glad I went out that day, because four days later the snow was melting rapidly with a daytime high of 55F.
One of the pleasures of cross-country skiing on our trails is trying to decipher the messages in the snow. The longer the snow has been on the ground, the more messages you will find. What I’m ‘reading’ are the tracks made by birds and animals as they meander and crisscross our property. While most of the tracks belong to mammals, large and small, occasionally I find bird tracks. In our woods there are some wonderful three toed bird tracks that wander in and out of the thick forest and parallel to the ski trails. These are the tracks of the ruffed grouse; a chicken sized game bird in the same Family (Phasianidae) as the Ring-necked Pheasant which I wrote about in the previous blog.
Unlike the grasslands favored by the Pheasant, Ruffed Grouse are found across the northern U.S. and up into Canada in deciduous and mixed forests. In the winter, the grouse is the phantom of the forest. Their tracks form a continuous, seamless pattern that looks like stitching on a white blanket. Each autumn, the birds grow small tooth like projections along the edges of their toes, which help them to walk on top of the snow, much like snowshoes.
While the multitude of tracks might seem to imply there is a flock in residence, there are probably no more than a handful, but they are in perpetual motion seeking food. Grouse are highly omnivorous, eating any vegetable and animal matter that presents itself. During the winter most food is buried under snow or frozen, so they turn their sights on the buds, dried fruits, and catkins of the trees. In this month or the next, their wanderings will take on a more focused and determined air as they begin the annual courtship season.
As I skied the trail this afternoon, I noticed a spot where one track turned into some heavier brush, and converged on a long, downed log. It was obvious that one or more birds had visited this spot because the snow had been compacted on top of the log. I feel quite certain this is a drumming log that a male grouse intends to use very soon to announce his presence to potential mates, as well as potential competitors.
The drumming of a male grouse, which is created by the rapid pumping up and down of its wings compresses air against its body, and creates an unmistakable pounding or reverberation in the chest of any human near enough to hear it. It starts slowly and builds to a crescendo of beats that would look like a blur to the human eye.
Besides finding the drumming log in the woods, I noticed an unusual track nearby. It was a set of grouse tracks, but on either side of the footprints there were narrow parallel drag marks that appeared to have been made by dragging the tips of the wings in the snow. When I stopped to look at the tracks, I heard the telltale sound of a sudden takeoff, somewhere deeper in the woods. Generally this is the only way I encounter grouse, in a heart stopping explosion of wings, just a few feet away. The birds are so perfectly camouflaged in gray and brown feathers that they are just part of the “woodwork” to the casual hiker or skier.
I have never seen any baby grouse in our woods, though I suspect there have been many. A female will lay between 8-14 eggs. The young are very precocious and able to feed themselves soon after hatching and can fly by one to two weeks. About three months later they are ready to set off on their own.
Ruffed grouse have a cyclical nature, with populations rising and falling every 10-12 years on average. But their numbers have been in declining in some places, particularly out east, where the mixed deciduous and coniferous forests have disappeared due to the spread of housing and other development, and the loss of mixed age forest. The Ruffed Grouse Society which began in 1961 is dedicated to the preservation of the species through habitat management and protection.
Seeing a male ruffed grouse in full courtship display is highly unusual, but I just recently encountered this video that shows very clearly a male trying to impress a female who happens to be sitting on a feeding platform (unusual in itself). You can’t help but smile at his focus and determination, and the female’s response. Notice the seeds the female is eating on the feeder and also how he is dragging his wingtips in the snow as he chases after her.
By Kate Crowley
Photos by Mike Link