Dances with grouse: Reader shares tale of walk in the woods

  • By Sharon Wootton / Special to the Herald
  • Friday, April 8, 2005 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

One of the many delightful aspects of birding is the enthusiasm of birders to share stories. I am the lucky recipient of many of those tales because readers call or write.

The vignettes have been appreciated gifts, the latest from reader Jim Strong. A few weeks ago his daughter and young grandson came to visit. They went for a walk through Strong’s wooded acres and were joined by a ruffed grouse. The walkers would walk, the grouse would follow.

His grandson climbed on a leaning tree; the grouse flew up behind him, flapped onto the boy’s back, and pecked at him. The family headed back and the grouse followed them nearly to the road. Strong returned the next day, the ruffed grouse tagged along.

That’s not the end of the story. A couple of grandsons visited the following week and took the walk.

“Yes, there was Ruffy,” Strong said.

One grandson sat down.

“Ruffy tried to fly up on his back but kept slipping off,” Strong said.

Birders love a good mystery: Why did Ruffy exhibit this behavior? Was he a pet on the lam? Had his mating signals run amuck?

Grouse don’t even hang out with each other outside of a mating moment, when the female shepherds her brood to food, or when sharing a scarce winter food source.

By fall, when the brood that the male helped create (then abandoned) is grown and young males want territories of their own, King Ruff turns up his drumming activity. That’s the signal for youngsters to practice territoriality somewhere else. Once a territory has been claimed, most male grouse will spend the rest of their lives within 300 yards of their drumming logs.

Serious drumming in the spring is the grouse’s come-hither call, accompanied by feather-fluffing, tail-fanning, and ruff-spreading. The grouse does not strike the log with his wings but moves them so fast that they create a vacuum into which air rushes, producing the drumming sound. The parallel is lightning cutting through air, creating a hole; and air rushing to fill the vacuum, creating thunder.

Oddly enough, it’s not a homing beacon to predators, theoretically because there’s a projection aspect that makes it hard to locate, and partly because the sound is so low that a prime predator, the great horned owl, can’t hear it.

Life is short for a ruffed grouse. A late May brood of 10 to 12 will be down to 5 or 6 by mid-August, according to the Ruffed Grouse Society. Only two or three will live to the first breeding season. Out of 1,000 chicks, about 80 will live one year, and one may live to be 8 years old, by the society’s figures.

At 17 inches, our permanent residents are a little larger than pigeons. There are three subspecies in Washington, and two basic colors, lighter grayish-brown and darker reddish-brown. By and large, most Western Washington grouse are red-phased, perhaps because of the darker forests; most eastside birds are gray-phased.

Unlike Ruffy, grouse tend to hold their positions until the last moment, so you may be practically on top of one before it flushes in an exhilarating explosion. They can also hover to some degree and make a complete turn in the air. Or jump on your back and give you a little peck.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or

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