Many writers refer to the “drumming” of the male Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) as the heartbeat of the woods. The heart connection is further deepened when I hear a Ruffed Grouse drum nearby, as his low frequency beats resonate in my own chest. Listen to the recording below. Can you feel it too?
In his journal on May 11, 1853, Henry David Thoreau, both describes and ponders the drumming of the Ruffed Grouse aptly, as follows:
“Beginning slowly and deliberately, the partridges beat sounds faster and faster from far way under the boughs and through the aisles of the wood until it becomes a regular roll, but is speedily concluded. How many things shall we not see and be and do when we walk there when the partridge drums!”(Thoreau’s Bird-Lore, p. 97)
Drumming by the male Ruffed Grouse can occur throughout the year but he is most active in spring when attracting a mate. He will select a log or rock, often moss covered, as his platform for the performance. (His scat at the site may even alert you to his spot.) The female will visit him to mate, though she will nest and raise young by herself usually within a 1/2 mile or so away.
Sometimes when walking in the woods I have be startled by the sudden and explosive sounds of a Ruffed Grouse flying away. A female Ruffed Grouse with young, however, does her best to distract me from her chicks who are unable to fly away. She will drop her wings and make distress calls. You may even hear the chicks scurrying under cover. Here is a recording I made after a nearby hiker alarmed a hen with chicks.
Seth Benz, Director of Bird Ecology at Schoodic Institute, offers further information and analysis below to help you understand and find Ruffed Grouse on the Schoodic Peninsula at Acadia National Park.
The Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) occurs throughout deciduous and coniferous forests across the continent of North America. It is roughly a crow-sized bird with cryptic feather markings of mottled gray, brown, and black coloration.
The earliest eBird report of Ruffed Grouse on the Schoodic Peninsula occurred on January 16, 1979 and the most recent was May 13, 2020. The total number of peninsula-based checklists reporting the species is 179 submitted by 65 different observers. The overarching number of eBird checklists for Schoodic Peninsula, regardless of species, is 4,186. So the percentage of checklists with grouse-sightings is less than 1%. This is interesting when you consider that the Ruffed Grouse is considered a “common” species, yet it is reported relatively infrequently.
Nevertheless, the species has been reported in every month of the year as depicted here on the Schoodic Peninsula Ruffed Grouse relative occurrence bar chart.
The thicker the green column in a given week of the month the more likely you are to encounter this bird. May is typically the best month to hear “drumming” for which the Ruffed Grouse is best known. As noted earlier, most often they are heard but not seen, whether drumming or explosively flying away.