Spring is arriving and so are the Ruffed Grouse

It appears that spring has already arrived in much of the Hudson Valley region after a mild winter. I have had reports of forsythia in full bloom in Kingston as early as March 3. This is a full month earlier than I would expect and perhaps the earliest since 2012. This spring when I return to Conesville in late April I may have already missed some of the very earliest floral displays.

It is a tough decision for me whether to return home early, or not. Most of Florida is closed down right now and many of my snowbird friends have already returned home, since there is little to do except go to the beach. I am not a beach person at all, except for when I have a fishing rod in my hand, or in a rod holder close by. I learned many years ago that being in the sun is not in my best health interest. So far the Gulf of Mexico has not been quarantined and there are many places to fish at no charge so I guess I will remain here until at least after Easter.

A reader, who used to be an avid game bird hunter, asked me to write about Ruffed Grouse. I am happy to oblige since there was a time when I also hunted grouse with great pleasure. I don’t do this anymore for reasons that I may or may not disclose by the end of this column.

Grouse are beautiful and fascinating birds that most of us rural residents have seen up close, or heard from a distance. The sound of what seems to be a reluctant gas motor starting up, (thump,..thump…thump.. then THUMPTHUMPTHUMP! as the engine fully engages is how it sounds). Think of a tractor motor starting, slowly at first, but then accelerating and you get the gist.

Most of the following information is from Cornell’s lab of Ornithology. The male Ruffed Grouse’s signature drumming display doesn’t involve drumming on anything but air. As the bird quickly rotates its wings forward and backward, air rushes in beneath the wings creating a miniature vacuum that generates a deep, thumping sound wave that carries up to a quarter of a mile. Most of this courtship behavior occurs in the spring but often is heard in the fall as well, just as turkeys sometimes gobble in the fall.

Grouse are not migrating snowbirds, as I am. They tough out the winter in the north sometimes burrowing into soft snow drifts to escape the elements for periods of time. A mostly open winter such as this past one is not good for them overall. The toes of Ruffed Grouse grow projections off their sides in winter, making them look like combs. The projections are believed to act as snowshoes to help the grouse walk across snow.

Ruffed Grouse can digest bitter, often toxic plants that many birds can’t handle, including the buds of aspen, which are a major source of their winter diets. They also eat insects and a variety of other, more traditional, “bird food” in warmer weather. Ruffed Grouse can consume and digest large volumes of fibrous vegetation thanks to extra-long, paired pouches at the junction of the small and large intestines.

Ruffed Grouse’s popularity as a game bird led to some of North America’s earliest game management efforts. They are certainly a tasty dish with a mild flavor that is not as strong as wild turkey. They taste more like butterball turkey to me, or free range chicken. I suspect many young readers have never tasted free range chicken. You need to find a farmer who raises these, such as Heather Ridge Farm, just outside of Potter Hollow. I find the bland, boneless chicken breasts sold at supermarkets to be pretty tasteless compared to these. Grouse are delicious in my book.

New York had a closed season (no hunting in part of the year) on Ruffed Grouse starting in 1708. In much of their range, Ruffed Grouse populations go through 8-to-11-year cycles of increasing and decreasing numbers. Their cycles can be attributed to the snowshoe hare cycle. When hare populations are high, predator populations increase too. When the hare numbers go down, the predators must find alternate prey and turn to grouse, decreasing their numbers.

It seems like every spring I see at least a few successful broods of baby grouse walking on my dirt road, but predators usually reduce these numbers drastically by late fall. Sometimes these birds display rather cavalier attitudes towards humans. Often, they refuse to get out of your way while driving and rarely they will actually bond with a human being as a constant outdoor companion. I have a long story along these lines that I may share with you all someday but now I am out of space.

Reach Bob Beyfuss at rlb14@cornell.edu.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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