Wild Profile: Meet the ruffed grouse

Published: January 14, 2020 · Updated: May 11, 2020

Ruffed grouse By Danita Delmont/Shutterstock

Which bird makes a woodpecker-like drumming sound, but isn’t a woodpecker? The ruffed grouse. You’ll see them hunting and pecking underneath your bird feeders in winter. By late March and breeding season, meanwhile, you’ll hear the males make an unusual, non-vocal, but very recognizable sound. They “drum” by beating their wings in front of their chests in bursts of about 10 seconds, 50 wing beats per second. 

Physics time! The rapid wing-flapping creates a vacuum; the drumming noise is caused by the air rushing into this low pressure pocket of space. Males repeat the sound several times in a row, to attract females or establish territories, the way songbirds use their songs. At a frequency of 40 Hz, the noise is audible to humans (it’s a little like the distant drone of a motorboat), but it’s too low for owl predators to hear. 

Ruffed grouse aren’t speedy flyers, and usually only stay airborne for about 200 metres at a time. To stay safe from predators, they rely on camouflage, paired with moving…very…slowly. Spring, summer, and fall, ruffed grouse can blend in with the greys of tree trunks and the browns of fallen leaves; in winter, they’re fond of concealing themselves under the snow—and then bursting out in an explosion of soft powder when hikers and skiers accidentally pass too close. Surprise!

Ruffed grouse don’t migrate, and you can find them almost everywhere in Canada.

But they’re also a species that goes through cyclical population crashes (like snowshoe hares) every two to 10 years. So one year can be grouse-heavy, another, not so much.

For info on feeding ruffed grouse and other common backyard or cottage birds, read our winter bird feeding tips.

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