Ruffed Grouse Hunting

I’ve been hunting since I was old enough to tote a gun. Growing up in Nebraska our main game bird was Pheasant. Since moving to Minnesota I have fallen in love with the pursuit of Ruffed Grouse. As much as I enjoy the pursuit of big game and waterfowl I have to admit that Grouse hunting ranks number one on my list of fall outings.

Although opinions will vary over what gun and ammo is the best pick for Grouse hunting, I think the number one thing for any upland game bird hunter to consider is to make sure their choice is powerful enough to deliver a quick, clean kill-but not so powerful that there’s nothing left of the prize but a mess of feathers. My personal preference is a 20-gauge shotgun with a modified choke and No. 6 shot when the leaves are on or a No. 4 shot when the leaves have fallen as I can keep my eye on the bird for further distance.

Grouse hidden in the colorful depths of autumn are often scared up by the rustle of crispy foliage under the hunter’s foot. Drumming and a sudden whir are thrilling sounds that the Grouse hunter must be ready to quickly react to. This reaction is known as “swinging-through” and consists of getting the gun moving faster than the bird. One’s instincts must work all at the same time-hearing, then seeing, or vice versa-the bird, swinging the gun, aiming while panning then pulling the trigger at the precise moment. Grouse are fast flyers and can instantly burst into flight, skimming trees in a cunning and dodging manner, making a calculated shot the ultimate challenge.

Habitat and Range in Minnesota: Ruffed Grouse are found in forests from Southeastern to Northwestern Minnesota. Young to middle aged Aspen forests provide the best habitat. Alder lowlands and patches of grey Dogwood are especially attractive to Ruffed Grouse in summer and fall. During winter, Ruffed Grouse spend nearly all of their time in snow burrows to stay warm and avoid predators. A Ruffed Grouse lives most of its life within just a few acres. Ruffed Grouse are loners. Unlike most other game bird species, which form coveys or flocks, Ruffed Grouse spend most of their adult life alone, except during the mating season.

Weight: Adult weight about 1 ½ pounds

Length: About 13 inches

Wingspan: 22-25 inches

Food: Ruffed Grouse favor the buds and twigs of Aspen but also eat the fruits of Dogwood, Mountain Ash and Thornapple. They also eat Rose Hips and the green leaves of Clover, Strawberries, Bunchberry, Aspen and some Ferns. Insects are the primary food for Ruffed Grouse chicks. Studies show that Grouse eat buds and needles of evergreens in wintertime which is believed to help them digest food in place of stones that might be hard for them to obtain from frozen or snow covered ground. Since they need to fill their gizzards with stones in order to digest food, Grouse are often spotted alongside gravelly paths or streams in the early morning and evening.

Identification: The Ruffed Grouse is a medium sized, fowl like game bird best known for its courtship displays and thunderous takeoffs. They are distinguished by the dark ruff-like feathers on their neck. Their broad tail is marked with a prominent dark band near the end. Ruffed Grouse color phases range from gray to chestnut. In winter, Ruffed Grouse have comb-like fringes on their toes that, like snowshoes, allow for easy travel in snow.

Reproduction: The peak of the mating season in Minnesota is late April. Males begin drumming, a sound created by compressing air beneath its wings, to advertise their presence to females. Other males are also alerted, and during this time considerable strutting and fighting may occur to determine who will breed with the females.

After breeding, the female is left to nest and raise the young on her own. The nest of the Grouse is a slight depression scratched out at the base of a tree or rock or alongside an old log. The nest is usually lined with dry grass, leaves, pine needles or other materials available near their nest site.

The female lays about two eggs every three days. After all the eggs (9-14) are laid, she begins incubation, usually a period of 23-24 days that may be lengthened by cold or wet weather or prolonged absences from the nest. The natural camouflage of the hen’s coloration and nest makes it almost impossible to spot her while she is nesting. If the nest is destroyed during early incubation, the hen will usually renest.

Within a few hours of hatching, the grouse chicks are able to run about and they can fly at 10-12 days. By six weeks of age the young have well developed plumage and resemble the adult in color. Many young do not survive as young chicks are very sensitive to dampness and a period of rain in late May or early June will greatly affect their survival. Chicks will stay with the hen until late September and are fully grown in about 16 weeks.

Predators: Many animals hunt Ruffed Grouse including birds of prey such as Goshawk, Great Horned Owl. Various mammals also hunt Ruffed Grouse such as Fox, Fishers and Bobcats. Humans also fall into this category.

Population in Minnesota: Ruffed Grouse populations rise and fall at intervals of about 10 years. Many other species of wildlife such as hares also cycle at 10 year intervals. While the cause of these cycles are unknown, one theory is as the hare population declines predators change their diet more towards the Grouse. Then, as the hare population returns predators change their diet back to the hare. In Minnesota, the annual hunter harvest varies from 250,000 to more than one million Ruffed Grouse. Hunting does not affect Ruffed Grouse populations either at the top or bottom of their population cycles.