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Ruffed Grouse

Natural History 

Ruffed grouse drumming on a drumming log.

The ruffed grouse ( Bonasa umbellus) is a popular game bird found throughout West Virginia. Cryptically-colored with a mottled brown and white body, its head feathers form a crest and it has black shoulder patches. Its tail is finely barred with one wider black bar near the tip. These tail feathers, or rectrices, are used to differentiate the male from the female. One way to determine gender is to measure the central tail feather length, including the shaft. Fully grown tail feathers over 5 7/8 inches long usually belong to a male; those less than 5 1/2 inches usually belong to a hen. However, birds with intermediate measurements can be either male or female. 

Another way to determine gender is to look at the feathers on the upper side of the rump, where males have two white or light-colored spots. Females only have one light spot. Across their range, ruffed grouse can have two color phases, red and gray.  

Ruffed grouse are well-known for their startlingly explosive flight when flushed and for the “drumming” sound males produce to establish territories. This drumming sound is made when the bird beats its wings against its chest, creating an air vacuum. The male will usually perform this while standing on a drumming log, stone or mound of dirt. Grouse nest on the ground in a hollowed-out depression of leaf litter where they lay a clutch of eight to 14 eggs. The hen incubates her eggs for 24 to 26 days, so she must stay hidden from predators for three to four weeks. Ruffed grouse chicks are precocial, and once their downy feathers have dried, they are ready to leave the nest. The growing chicks require high levels of protein from insects found on the forest floor. Ruffed grouse have a short life expectancy because they are one of the lowest species on the food chain and are preyed upon by many West Virginia predators.  

Reliant on forest habitat, ruffed grouse are nonmigratory and active year-round. During the winter months, ruffed grouse will feed on twigs, catkins, and buds from aspen, birches and black cherry trees. Other times of the year, ruffed grouse feed on leaves, shoots, seeds, fruits and acorns found on the forest floor. Adults are almost entirely herbivorous. 

Approximately 79% of West Virginia’s landscape is forested – our forests are getting older, acreages of large-diameter trees are increasing, and forest canopies are closing. Long-term declines in ruffed grouse populations can be attributed to this forest maturation, which comes from a lack of forest habitat management. Since ruffed grouse benefit from timber harvests and forest management, this fact sheet will touch on these management practices. Landowners should still seek additional resources and consult with foresters and biologists when making management decisions. 

Habitat Requirements 

Ruffed grouse need a variety of forested habitats, young to old, within the same site or within close proximity. Ruffed grouse will use these forested habitats seasonally depending on cover, food availability and life cycle. Openings, such as forest roads or clearings, within those forests also are important in providing bugging areas and brooding cover. Young regenerating forest stands, which are dominated by a diversity of sapling-stage tree species with an herbaceous ground cover, provide food and escape cover.  

Within the oak-hickory forests of the central Appalachians, mature stands of mast-producing trees (oaks) in close proximity to young regenerating forests provide fall food sources. Habitat management efforts should be directed toward maximizing the diversity of forest age classes and the interspersion of these various habitat components.  

Ruffed grouse depend upon a diversity of food items for survival, which varies through the changing seasons. Herbaceous matter, such as rhododendron, ferns, greenbrier, grasses and forbs, hard mast, like acorns, beechnuts and cherries, soft mast, such as hawthorn, crabapple, sumacs, dogwood, black haw and wild grape, and insects are all important components of a grouse’s diet. Ruffed grouse obtain moisture from the vegetation and food items upon which they forage. Although ruffed grouse typically do not depend upon water sources, such as streams, seeps and waterholes, to obtain water for survival, these sites can be managed to promote herbaceous vegetation and should not be overlooked in management activities. Southwest and western slopes are critical for winter feeding, and conifer stands provide thermal cover during winter. 

Habitat Management

Forest Management 

Thick saplings provide winter cover for ruffed grouse.

West Virginia forests can be managed through various regeneration methods and timber stand improvement techniques. To promote ruffed grouse, forest management activities should be directed toward maintaining young regenerating forested habitat near mature stands, which provide hard and soft mast production.  

Even-aged silvicultural methods (e.g. clearcuts, shelterwood cuts) are recommended to allow forest stands to regenerate, producing stands with the high stem densities of sapling stage vegetation, which grouse require. Even-aged cuts should typically be 10 to 40 acres in size, depending on the landowner’s goals and acreage limitations, and should have an irregular shape to maximize the edge of the timber harvest.  

In addition, regeneration cuts should be distributed throughout the property to maintain early successional habitat interspersion with other habitat components. These harvests will typically provide quality grouse cover from approximately five to 20 years of age. Timber harvests that are positioned within close proximity to oak and beech mast production and herbaceous openings are most beneficial. Timber management strategies should be instituted to assure regeneration of the stand – this is extremely important, especially in oak-dominated stands. 

Significant amounts of slash and tops should be left within the even-aged cuts to provide barriers against deer browse, especially in heavily forested landscapes and in areas that support moderate to high deer populations. In areas of moderate to high deer densities, landowners must address the impacts of deer damage to forest vegetation. Overpopulated deer herds can reduce the amount of ground-level vegetation that is required by ruffed grouse for cover and forage.   

However, a sound deer harvest program to maintain deer at low to moderate levels is recommended to achieve the desired habitat conditions for grouse.  

Hardwood stands also can be thinned prior to maturity (beginning at stand age 20 years, then periodically thinned to stand maturity) to increase sunlight and nutrients, which promote growth of residual trees. Thinning also can be used to influence tree species composition by removing or thinning less-desirable trees, such as maple, yellow popular and ash, to promote the growth of more desirable trees, such as oak, black cherry, American beech and birch. Thinning a stand also will increase herbaceous growth within the understory and midstory, increasing cover and forage for ruffed grouse. 

Sustaining Young Forest Vegetation 

Skidsteer with mulcher head used to set back succession.

Given time, old fields will transition into young forests as woody species, such as wild plum, black locust, yellow popular and black cherry, colonize a site. This transition period can provide the vertical structure and cover needed by ruffed grouse as foraging areas, nesting cover and escape cover. Likewise, the regeneration of forests after a timber harvest or major disturbance results in the high stem density needed to provide ruffed grouse habitat. However, these types of vegetation are temporary and over time will transition into mature forests, which will no longer provide the food and cover ruffed grouse require. Therefore, landowners must continually create young forest vegetation by harvesting small patches over a larger forested area or periodically re-cutting or mulching the same site over time.  Harvesting small patches of forest over a large area can create a patchwork of various-aged stands, and re-cutting or mulching the same site periodically (every five to 10 years) will ensure foraging, escape and nesting cover are available for ruffed grouse.

Herbaceous Openings

Ruffed grouse also require herbaceous forest clearings or linear openings in their forested habitats to provide critical foraging and brooding habitat. These openings can be in the form of roads, logging trails and landings, natural openings from storms or fire, or managed open areas and should consist of herbaceous vegetation that includes native forbs or planted cool season legumes and grains. Since West Virginia’s landscape is mostly forested, these herbaceous openings are a habitat component that is missing from most landscapes and therefore should be actively created or maintained to promote ruffed grouse. 

Grapevine Arbors 

Wild grapevines provide food and cover for ruffed grouse.

Grapevines should be promoted when possible to retain and enhance food and cover for grouse.  Existing wild grape arbors (preferably one to two per acre) should be retained in forest stands when commercially feasible. Forest stands can be thinned around grape vines to enhance growth of not only grapevines, but also herbaceous vegetation in the understory. Grape arbors can be enhanced by felling and wedging two or more trees together to create an arbor or tepee effect. In addition to providing the arbor effect, the increased sunlight will stimulate the growth of the wild grape vines and increase fruit production. However, grapevines can limit growth or break down the canopy of desirable mast-producing tree species and make timber harvests more difficult. 

Expansion of Aspen Clones 

Young regenerating aspen stands with high stem densities are highly preferred by grouse for the escape cover they provide and for their young buds and shoots, which are favored grouse forage. Small stands of big-tooth or quaking aspen can be found throughout West Virginia. Mature stands, which provide minimal value for grouse, can be enhanced by clearcutting methods. In addition, aspen stands can be expanded by clearcutting an additional 75-foot buffer around the stand. Aspen trees, which thrive on disturbance, primarily regenerate by root suckers that mature trees generate underground. By harvesting the mature aspen trees and the surrounding buffer trees, the aspen clump can naturally regenerate and spread into the buffer area. 

Drumming Logs 

During timber harvest, unmerchantable logs 8 to 14 feet long with a minimum diameter of 12 inches can be placed or left in clearcut areas or within small forest openings (one to two per acre). They should be oriented parallel to the slope to provide suitable grouse drumming sites. 

Final Thoughts 

Landowners can increase West Virginia’s ruffed grouse populations by focusing on meeting grouse habitat needs. First, implement forest management practices to increase young regenerating forests with high stem densities. Second, focus management efforts to promote hard mast-producing trees, particularly oak species. Third, effectively manage forest roads and openings to promote herbaceous vegetation for foraging and brooding habitat. Consult with a professional forester or wildlife biologist to ensure that the management objective of improving ruffed grouse habitat is met successfully.  

Resources

The Ruffed Grouse Society

Ecology and Management of Appalachian Ruffed Grouse. 2011. Dean Stauffer, Editor. Hancock House Publishers, Blaine WA. 176 pages. 


Author: Sheldon Owen, WVU Extension Wildlife Specialist
Last Reviewed: January 2021