By guest writer Anne Torrey
Columnist’s note: Anne Torrey, of Gordon, Wis., participated in a natural connections writing workshop I led last fall and continues to hone her craft. I hope you enjoy his unique account of witnessing a common event: the drumming of the ruffed grouse. While the first drums reached our ears months ago, the subtle beats still echo through the forest as the males assert their territories and make sure all the ladies have been attended to. –Emily Stone, naturalist/education director, Cable Museum of Natural History.
We were happy to be walking in the wooded hills despite the miserable weather. The air was crisp with the clayey smell of decaying leaves, and the wonders of early spring filled our senses. Tiny green cocoons made their way up and out, while the birds sang happily gathering more materials with which to fortify their nests. The creek ran with water from recently melted ice, the overflow soaking past the marshy edges. Woodpeckers clattered loudly in search of lunch.
About five miles in, we came to a large stand of mature cottonwoods. Pausing for a moment, I was surprised to hear what sounded like a helicopter, rapidly picking up speed. Suddenly it stopped. Hey? Wait, there it was again, only this time it sounded more like an old boat engine starting up, rapidly gaining RPM. Put… put… put… put… put… put.put put put. Then it stopped.
Confused, I looked at my husband, who smiled and gestured to Tug, whose tail was sticking out, ears pricked up, and staring into the forest. He raised a paw. He was pointing! Eli and Tug had heard this before and knew exactly what was going on. We were treated to a spring drumming performance by the male ruffed grouse. A grouse makes this engine-like sound by standing on a drumming log about a foot off the ground. He stretches out and begins to beat his wings against the air, faster and faster, creating a vacuum, just like lightning creates thunder. Only instead of a loud BOOM! we get the thumpthumpthumpthump beat of an old two-cylinder tractor.
“Tuggy SIT DOWN!” Eli said quietly. “Good Guy!” As we searched the forest for the source of the drums, we noticed movement to the left of our position. Grouse are difficult to spot due to their mottled brown plumage. Unlike many species, the male ruffed grouse cannot use conspicuous good looks to attract a mate; instead, trust this fantastic musical show. As we watched and listened to their amazing display, we kept our eyes peeled for interested women.
Typically, one male (sometimes called a Thunder Chicken) keeps his six to ten acres to himself and stays there for life. One or two females may also live in his territory, but they do not constitute a society. Once mated, he returns to his bachelor pad and the female wanders up to half a mile away. She makes her nest in the leaves at the base of a tree stump or thicket.
Over a two-week period, the single mother will lay a clutch of 8 to 14 beige eggs. She waits to start incubating until she has laid the last egg, so they will all hatch at about the same time, in less than a month. Once the thumb-sized chicks have dried off, they are ready to leave the nest and begin foraging for protein sources such as insects and small animals. As they get older, they will gradually switch to a diet of mostly fruit and green plant material.
The young begin to fly short distances at around five days of age, resembling tiny feathered bumblebees. Due to multiple factors, only about 45% ever fall. As adults, their numbers are further reduced by hunters, predators, and their own clumsiness. Grouse fly in startled bursts when disturbed, and are occasionally killed by crashing into trees, or your car, in a moment of panic.
The aspen forest is the favorite home of the ruffed grouse, as it has abundant winter buds and then fresh leaves. Later in the spring we will return to this location and perhaps Tug will point out some “bumblebee grouse” chicks so we can observe the next phase in the life cycle of the ruffed grouse.
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and cablemuseo.org to see what we are doing.