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Ruffed Grouse

Dear Bird Folks:

I know we have bobwhite quail around here, but do we ever see rough grouse on Cape Cod?


Yeah Warren,

We have grouse around here, but Cape Cod has ‘Ruffed’ Grouse. “Rough” Grouse are more likely to come from a back alley in Brockton. The Cape grouse population isn’t huge, but we do have some if you look in the right spots. The Upper Cape seems to have the largest population, while Nickerson State Park in Brewster is your best bet on the Lower Cape.

Ruffed Grouse get their name from their ‘ruff’, a ring of black feathers that the bird has around its neck. During courtship, the male raises those black feathers to attract a female. I can’t believe that goofy ruff does much to attract the ladies. The male actually looks like he is wearing a cheap boa, hardly a macho image. What ’s really impressive, however, is the tail. The male grouse has a handsome tail which it can fan out like a turkey or a peacock. I’ll bet it ’s that tail that really gets the babes.

The other thing that Ruffed Grouse are noted for is their “drumming.” To attract females and to announce its territory, the male grouse will hop up on a log and flap its wings, much like a rooster does before it crows. Native Americans called the Ruffed Grouse the “carpenter bird” because they believed the bird was beating on the log. However, the grouse is actually cupping air with its wings and the rush of air produces a thumping sound that can be heard over a good distance. The thumping starts slowly and continues to build faster and faster until it becomes a blur of sound.

You know, you can make this sound, or something like it, on your own. Simply take your finger tips on each hand and alternately beat your two collar bones. Start slowly at first and then quickly pick up the pace. If your chest is as hollow as mine, and you have a little coordination, you will be making the drumming sound of the Ruffed Grouse. My wife gets mad at me if I do it while I’m lying in bed at night, but secretly I know she really likes it.

Another unusual feature about Ruffed Grouse is their feet. In the winter, they actually grow their own snowshoes. In the fall, the grouse grow short stiff feathers along the sides of their toes. These feathers help the bird walk on top of the snow. I should note that where as Cape Cod is the northern range for bobwhites, the Cape is probably the warmest place that a Ruffed Grouse ever sees. Ruffed Grouse love the snow and can be found throughout most of Canada and the northern US, including interior Alaska. Grouse have been known to fly headfirst into deep snow. Believe it or not, the snow offers the bird insulation from the often even colder air temperatures. Occasionally, a near-sighted Cape grouse will dive head first into a sand dune and man, is that bird embarrassed.

Ruffed Grouse don’t migrate, so the birds in Alaska never leave, no matter how cold it gets. The same is true for the Cape birds. The down side of that is, if anything happens to our local birds, there won’t be any new birds flying in from somewhere else to take their place. Isn’t it odd that most of us talk about cardinals and geese, while Ruffed Grouse, truly unique birds living right here on Cape Cod, receive little of our attention.

The grouse are out there Warren, but there aren’t many, so you’ll need a little luck. But if you do find one, don’t make a crack about the cheap boa that it’s wearing, just in case it’s a Rough Grouse.