The ruffed grouse is common throughout most of Canada. It gets its name from the “ruffed” or dark-coloured neck feathers that are particularly large on the male.
The colour of grouse is related to its habitat. Generally they tend to be darker in dark forest and greyer in lighter bush. In the east, most grouse are grey.
On the male, the broad band of dark colour in the tail is usually unbroken. The ruffed grouse is adapted to hardwood bush and forest. Its beak, legs and wings, and stomach permit it to browse on buds, leaves and twigs. This grouse is expert at short, rapid, twisting flights but it is primarily a ground-dwelling bird. It is present wherever aspens, birches and alders are found. These broad-leaved trees provide the catkins and buds that are its staple winter diet.
Spring is mating time. The hen lays from 7 to 14 eggs in a shallow depression in the ground. After an incubation period of 23 or 24 days the eggs hatch in June. Some hens will nest again if their first clutch of eggs is destroyed early in incubation.
In autumn, young grouse disperse throughout the forest to claim their own territory. The displaced grouse may be forced into habitat where food and cover are inadequate. This leads to low survival rates in winter. Hunting has little effect on numbers. The majority of birds taken are young juveniles which would die anyway.
Similar to the peaks and lows of snowshoe hare populations, grouse populations also have an approximate 10 year cycle of boom and bust.
Because much of our coniferous forest has been cut or burned and succeeded by hardwoods, we probably have more ruffed grouse than ever. This increase may be at the expense of the spruce grouse or “fool hen”, a conifer-loving relative.
The spruce grouse feeds almost exclusively on evergreen needles. It is much darker than the Ruffed, with a black throat and heavily-barred black and grey chest. It has a shorter tail with a rusty red or chestnut border.
Many people find the meat of the spruce grouse to have a strong “gamey” taste.