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I caught sight of the first silhouette edging over the New Year's snow, stalking through the hemlock, cedar and dogwood hedge. (Planted for wildlife, the front of our home offers an attractive dining menu for various visitors.)

Out too far, one grouse slipped and plopped into a drift. Righting itself, it shook like a dog to shed snow before climbing back into the tree.

I caught sight of the first silhouette edging over the New Year's snow, stalking through the hemlock, cedar and dogwood hedge. (Planted for wildlife, the front of our home offers an attractive dining menu for various visitors.) Alerting my wife, we gathered at the window to observe as three ruffed grouse, locally called partridge, jumped for rose hips and dangled off the slimmest of Indian pear branches to pick the choicest buds. Out too far, one grouse slipped and plopped into a drift. Righting itself, it shook like a dog to shed snow before climbing back into the tree. We felt fortunate to have witnessed these antics.

Chicken-shaped and weighing less than a kilogram (about a pound and a half), ruffed grouse have handsome feathers patterned with brown, black and buff. Males have a ruff, or collar of dark feathers that can be raised to attract females-hence their name. A crest on their heads also rises and falls, giving expression to each bird's disposition.

Males drum each spring to lure potential mates and proclaim a territory. The sound drifts through our open window in the darkness before dawn. Putt…putt…putt…putt…brrrrrrrrrrmmm. Sounding like a reluctant lawn mower, grouse are the only birds that drum by pounding the air. A suitable stage might be a fallen log, a melting snowdrift, or a boulder left by the last ice age. Upon it, they stand upright, tail spread wide, with claws firmly gripped, and begin to pump air with their wings. During the fast drumming, air is compressed by nearly 50 wingbeats in eight seconds to produce a 40 cycle per second sound that can be heard up to one and a half kilometres away. 

A grouse may use as many as six sites for drumming, but one site is favoured. Many years ago, I saw one grouse on the West River in Antigonish County while angling from a canoe. It was performing on a log completely surrounded by floodwaters. That's persistence! The sound of a grouse drumming often echoes off trees and hillsides, confusing some predators as to its origin. Fortunately for the grouse, Great Horned Owls seem unable to hear the particular frequency and bypass most drumming sites.

Ruffed grouse live in a territory of about 2.5 to 12 hectares (six to 30 acres). Three different types of habitat are needed for feeding, roosting and nesting. Woodlot owners can manage habitat to encourage the survival of these fascinating birds.

Brushy areas with low growing cover are used by females rearing their broods and for food in summer and fall. Leaves and insects are preferred, but these birds will eat many types of plants and animals. Older stands of hardwoods, such as aspen, poplar, birch, choke cherry and Indian pear or serviceberry, supply buds in fall, winter, and spring. Apple trees are favourite autumn haunts, and rose hips a staple in the winter. Male flowers or catkins on poplar, aspen, and other hardwoods are a rich source of protein each spring.

Limby softwoods growing in open areas provide nighttime roosts and escape from cold winter winds. Such trees should be plentiful, so the grouse can move around. Nighttime predators learn to search solitary tree sites. These become traps.

Nesting takes place each spring in alder thickets, hardwood and softwood stands. Females build cup-shaped nests lined with leaves on the ground, often near the base of a tree. From nine to 13 eggs are laid in late April or early May.

Ground nests offer easy pickings for four-legged predators, so newly hatched chicks are able to follow their mother when only a few hours old. She looks after them for eight to 10 weeks, vigorously defending her young. I have been viciously attacked on my own front doorstep by a female grouse defending her brood. Talk about hen-pecked! Out of respect, I retreated into the house, quietly leaving by the basement door.

Tales of unusual grouse behaviour abound. Grouse sometimes become fearless, some would say tame. Others are attracted to the sound of an axe or a tractor motor. Photographers have tricked grouse within shutter range by acting like Tarzan-thumping on their chests or beating the ground to imitate drumming. Grouse occasionally attack tractors or pant-legs with a vengeance. Caught up in the imperative to defend a territory, some do regular battle with their own image in a window or hub cap. 

Each autumn, young grouse disperse to seek their own territory. In uncharted lands without any parental guidance, many fly accidentally into vehicles, walls or windows. The office staff of Rod and Gun Magazine in Quebec were a bit startled years ago when a grouse burst through a window and proceeded to perch on a bookcase. Adult males with territories drum incessantly in the fall, serving notice to young interlopers looking for a home that this place is occupied.

Proper footwear is essential for grouse survival each winter. They develop "snowshoes" during the late fall and early winter. These are comb-like growths (called pectinations) on each side of the toes that spread their weight over a larger area, enabling the birds to walk more easily over the snow. We eagerly follow their rambles through our winter woods. As the blanket of snow is reduced to drifts, then to bare ground, the sputtered drumming of early-morning males begins again through the forest. A sure sign of spring!

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