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 Grouse

Ruffed and Sooty

Introduction

An initial dive into the topic “Grouse” is, at first, a little intimidating because nine species exist in Canada.  The Canadian Encyclopedia states: “Of the 10 North American species, 9 occur in Canada (6 grouse and 3 ptarmigans). Grouse species include Blue (Dendragapus obscurus), Spruce (D. canadensis), Ruffed (Bonasa umbellus), Sharp-tailed (Tympanuchus phasianellus) and Sage (Centrocercus urophasianus). The Greater-Prairie-Chicken (T. cupido) is extirpated in Canada."

But what species of grouse might we expect to see here on the Sunshine Coast and around our Hotel Lake neighbourhood?  We took a short cut and asked Tony Greenfield, a long-time contributing writer of the regularly published article “Good Birding” in the Coast Reporter newspaper.

 

As only an expert in the field can do, Tony cleared things up by explaining that there are two types of grouse that we might see here on the Sunshine Coast; they are:

 

The RUFFED GROUSE (Bonasa umbellus) is the species expected at sea-level and occurs up to mid-elevations.  

 

The SOOTY GROUSE (Dendragapus obscurus), (formerly called Blue Grouse), occurs at mid to high, even alpine, elevations. It occasionally wanders down below the power line, but that is rare.

 

Editorial Note:  The proper capitalization of animal common names has long been debated. The general rule has been that common names of  mammals, birds, insects, fish and other life forms are not capitalized. It’s grizzly bear, not Grizzly Bear. But, in recent times the debate has been influenced by the increasing use of capitalization and this is particularly so in the birding community. So on this webpage we will join that popular movement and call a bald eagle a Bald Eagle flying over a Ruffed Grouse!

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Range

The range of the Ruffed Grouse extends across most parts of southern Canada and the north-east and north-western states and parts of Alaska. They are not migratory but live their entire lives within a few hectares. The total North American population is estimated at 18 million birds with 86% of those living in Canada.  (Note: In New England Ruffed Grouse are generally called partridges but they are only distant relatives of the Grey Partridge.)

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The range of the Sooty Grouse (formerly called Blue Grouse) is very limited and spans forested portions of the west coast, from southeastern Alaska to northern California, including the Cascade Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. In BC, Sooty Grouse are widespread in the coastal areas along the Georgia Depression. They are also not migratory.

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Characteristics - Anatomy

Ruffed and Sooty Grouse are rather similar in appearance.

 

Ruffed Grouse weigh 450-750 grams and are about the size of an American Crow, and distinctly smaller than a Wild Turkey.  They have short legs and often look slimmer than other grouse species. 

The name “Ruffed” comes from the long, shiny, black or chocolate coloured neck feathers that are most prominent on the male.  Displaying males expose this rich black ruff of neck feathers.

 

Ruffed Grouse have a short, triangular and cocky crest and a tail marked by a broad, dark band near the tip. Their bodies are intricately patterned with dark bars and spots over a reddish-brown or grayish background. The dark bars extend down the side of the neck and widen as they approach the belly. 

This colouration varies across Canada; in the east these grouse are grey and red, in central Canada they are predominantly grey while here on the Sunshine Coast most grouse are a darkish red-brown. This particular colouration provides good camouflage in our local dark forest habitat, an important protection from predators.

 

At a distance it is difficult to distinguish males from females. It helps to keep in mind that males are larger and have larger ruffs and longer tails and that the band of dark colour on the tail has no breaks.

A Sooty Grouse is larger than a Ruffed Grouse and smaller than a Wild Turkey.  Males are large chicken-like birds with a long, dark tail tipped in light grey. Plumage is dark grey and brown to black. During courtship, males expose a bare yellow-orange throat patch on either side of the neck, surrounded by white feathers.  Females and juveniles are also chicken-like with a small head and long tail. Colouration is speckled brown through black with a dark tail. Sooty Grouse occupy only a tiny area in southwestern BC and, as might be expected, information on this bird is somewhat limited. 

Calls and Sounds

Ruffed Grouse occur at very low population densities and they are hard to detect in the forest. However, male Ruffed Grouse create a signature deep-thumping sound by quickly rotating their wings forward and backward. This creates a miniature vacuum and air rushes in beneath the wings generating a deep, thumping sound that can carry up to a quarter of a mile. The thumping, (some say drumming) begins slowly and quickens over about 10 seconds, sounding like an old gas engine starting up, albeit reluctantly.  Here is a National Audubon Society short video of Ruffed Grouse drumming:

This “thumping or drumming” happens, most frequently, early in the morning. So if you note the locations where you hear drumming males, that is where you might find them. Otherwise, you may encounter foraging birds simply by walking slowly and quietly through appropriate forests, or while driving along narrow forested roads. In winter, watch for Ruffed Grouse feeding on deciduous-tree buds in bare treetops.

Sooty Grouse are usually heard rather than seen. Males can be extremely vocal in the breeding season from early spring into summer and can be heard constantly up in the coniferous trees in the hills with their “hoop, hoop”calls.  Displaying males make a low, owl-like hooting, a song which sounds like air blown across the top of a jug; a series of deep-toned hoots that might be heard a half a mile away.  Here is a video of a male Sooty Grouse display and hoot, by Mike Fitz:

Habitat

Ruffed Grouse generally live in an area of a few hectares, usually occupying mixed deciduous and coniferous forest interiors with scattered clearings. They also live along forested streams and in areas growing back from burning or logging.  In winter, they seek out dense stands of conifers for protection from cold winds. In winter snow conditions, Ruffed Grouse use the snow as an insulated wintertime roost by burying themselves at night in soft drifts. During winter both Ruffed Grouse and Sooty Grouse grow projections off the sides of their toes, which are believed to act as “snowshoes” to facilitate walking across snow.

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Sooty Grouse are primarily found in the Western Hemlock Biogeoclimatic Zone.

While they may breed in forests at sea level in the northern part of the range, most breeding habitats are open forests, and both old-growth forest with gaps as well as regenerating logged or burned areas with plenty of grasses and shrubs.

On the Sunshine Coast, along the Caren Range, they can be found at mid to high, even alpine, elevations and they occasionally wander down below the power line, but that is rare, according to Tony Greenfield.

Nesting and Life Cycle

Data on the life expectancy of grouse is mixed but they are known to live approximately six years, sometimes longer, but the average life span is likely less than 2-3 years. Adult males establish and defend territories as small as six acres and hens establish territories up to 25 acres that can overlap male territories during the winter.

The breeding display of the male Ruffed Grouse includes erecting long neck feathers to create a black "ruff" and fanning its tail.  After mating the female chooses a nest site, usually in areas with sparse ground cover and clear sightlines of approaching predators. The base of hollowed trees, stumps or rock outcroppings are common but nests are also established in brush piles. Gestation is 24 days and 9-14 eggs are normally laid. The eggs are milky to cinnamon-buff and sometimes with reddish brown spots.

 

When they hatch, they are covered in sandy or brown down with a triangular patch of black feathers around the ears. Within 24 hours of hatching the chicks are able to hunt and feed on insects on the forest floor.  The chicks remain with their mother for about 12 weeks; the male takes no part in caring for the chicks.

Sooty Grouse are cautious and wary and are usually encountered as solitary birds, except for hens when attending to their young.

 

In early spring the males begin their breeding displays from perches in trees with short flights and strutting displays on the ground. A dramatic display to attract females occurs when the male struts about with tail up and fanned. They also inflate air sacs on the sides of their throat thus spreading neck feathers to reveal bright yellow patches of skin with a white feather surround.

 

Nests are located in small depressions on the ground, and lined with dry vegetation and feathers although very little effort is put into making a significant nest lining.

 

Females lay and incubate 1–12 (normally 4–9) buffy, lightly speckled eggs. The young leave the nest within a day after hatching. Females provide all parental care and attend the young however, they do not feed the hatchlings. Hatchlings leave the nest very soon after emerging to forage in a family group with the female. These young birds eat mostly insects in the first 10 days of life.

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Foraging and Diet

A game bird's crop is an expandable pouch, near the gullet or throat, used to store excess food for later digestion. Crop contents are eventually passed to the stomach where enzymes begin to break down the food. Then the food moves into the gizzard where grit and stones, collected by the grouse along the edge of roads and paths, are stored and are now worked by the force of powerful muscles to grind the food further. 

 

In summer, Ruffed Grouse generally forage on the forest floor for fibrous vegetation, leaves, flowers, buds, berries and conifer needles and soft fruit such as salal.  While it is most likely to see single birds in the wild, this changes during summer when females with their delightfully active broods of chicks can be seen foraging for protein-rich insects; adult grouse also eat insects but these form only a small part of their diet.

During winter Ruffed Grouse may form flocks and they can be sighted up in trees foraging for needles of firs, pines and other conifers; Douglas-fir needles comprise about 60 % of their diet during winter.

 

Key tree species for the Sooty Grouse include lodgepole pine, limber pine, mountain hemlock, western hemlock, Douglas-fir, subalpine fir, white fir, Engelmann spruce, Sitka spruce, and western red cedar, etc.

Females often bring young chicks into open environments, especially where grasshoppers and seeds are plentiful.

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Endangered Species?

Ruffed Grouse’s popularity as a game bird (game bird is not a scientific term, but refers to any bird that is hunted) led to some of North America’s earliest game management efforts. In 1708, New York had a closed season on Ruffed Grouse (no hunting in part of the year). Searching through old Vancouver newspapers, references to grouse in the early 1900’s were almost always associated with grouse and deer hunting seasons which usually coincided, in the fall.

 

It is the same today.  During an open season, all you need is your hunting licence which also covers small game and upland birds. However, everyone should be aware that “No Shooting” and “Firearms Using Shot Only” areas in Pender Harbour restrict such hunting locally. 

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According to the British Columbia Ministry of Environment, BC supports about 28% (just over 5 million birds) of the Ruffed Grouse global population. British Columbia Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations describe: “Ruffed Grouse as the most popularly hunted upland game bird in British Columbia, accounting for 50-60% of the annual upland game bird harvest, which over the past years have ranged from 65,000 to 123,000 birds. The permanent loss of riparian forests to development and inundation from large scale hydroelectric projects both cause loss of suitable riparian habitat however, Ruffed Grouse is not at risk in British Columbia, and is considered secure across its entire range.”

 

So while government states that Ruffed Grouse is not at risk, we must keep in mind that Breeding Bird Survey data suggests that populations have declined since 1970. In addition, local populations of this species have, in fact, been extirpated in areas where urban development has removed forest habitat. Declines in habitat quality from over-abundant herbivores have also been documented.

Here at Hotel Lake, a quick survey of local residents revealed that it has been several years since the last sighting of a female grouse and chicks foraging around the lake nor can anyone recall seeing a grouse in the past few years except for neighbour Tarren who says: ..."occasionally, I will run across one in my walks through the forrest or on the side of the road but very rarely."  Please let us know if you have seen these birds recently.

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How can Humans Help and Respect?

Project Uplands Magazine:

“Why are Ruffed Grouse Populations Declining?

Globally, we are facing a biodiversity crisis, and much of it is due to loss of habitat. That’s also the case for ruffed grouse. Increasing urban/agricultural sprawl and declining rates of forest management have resulted in unnaturally single-aged forest with little structural diversity. This leaves wildlife that need diverse forests (including ruffed grouse) in a lurch. There’s a general understanding that ruffed grouse need young forest. This is certainly true. But it’s also true that they use forest patches of many different ages and structural types throughout the year to meet food and cover requirements. A diverse healthy forested landscape is thus important to maintain populations.”

 

The Canadian Encyclopedia states that...  “the Coastal Western Hemlock Zone is one of 14 biogeoclimatic zones. It occupies high precipitation areas up to 1000 m elevation west of the coastal mountains from the Washington to Alaska borders and beyond. Forests in this zone are dominated by western hemlock, often with co-dominant Pacific silver fir or western red cedar. Associated understory plants include salal and species of Vaccinium. Ten subzones are recognized within this large geographical area, reflecting gradations of continentality (hypermaritime to submaritime) and precipitation (very wet to dry). In the northern and wettest areas, Sitka spruce is an important tree, while in the southern or drier areas Douglas fir is more frequent. On extreme exposed coasts, stunted western hemlock, lodgepole pine and yellow cedar form complex mosaics with peat bogs.”

If that all sounds familiar that's because it describes our home, here and around Hotel Lake.  And because this is our home, it stands at the very core of the question: “How can Humans Help and Respect?”.  Everything we do to preserve and protect our environment will benefit, not just the local grouse species, but all local wild life, plant life and even we humans.

 

We hope you enjoyed this short introduction to the local grouse species that currently survive in our midst and we hope you will find, in this new connection, a perspective that will move us all to make better decisions along the path ahead.

Here is a great video: The Ruffed Grouse-Drummer Bird, created by "Lesley the Bird Nerd".

References

 

Hinterland Who’s Who:

https://www.hww.ca/en/wildlife/birds/ruffed-grouse.html#

 

All About Birds, about Ruffed Grouse:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Ruffed_Grouse/id#

 

All About Birds, about Sooty Grouse: 

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/sooty_grouse

 

Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia, about Ruffed Grouse:

https://www.birdatlas.bc.ca/accounts/speciesaccount.jsp?sp=RUGR&lang=en

 

Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia, about Sooty Grouse:

https://www.birdatlas.bc.ca/accounts/speciesaccount.jsp?sp=SOGR&lang=en

 

Ruffed Grouse Society & American Woodcock Society, although primarily centred on central and eastern USA, an excellent source of facts:

https://ruffedgrousesociety.org/grouse-facts-oo/

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