By David Cronenwett
It is always startling at that moment in September when we realize the accumulation of cooler nights, longer shadows and the fading greens of summer mean that a season is irretrievably slipping away. There will still be warm days yet, but diminishing daylight and each new pulse of cold from the north pushes the country further and further into dormancy. There are only late asters and a few migrant songbirds left on the landscape now, but our resident bird species become more visible and obvious this time of year. A walk in the aspens or higher woods reveals some of my favorite locals; red-breasted nuthatches, mountain chickadees and ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus).
This grouse is widespread in most of our mountain ranges preferring aspen clones in the foothills and sticking to mixed-conifer woodlands higher in the montane forest zone. They are omnivorous but feed generally on berries, leaf buds and other vegetation. Forest conditions that produce the best Ruffed Grouse habitat are areas where fire or other disturbance create openings with a variety of early successional plants and shrubs. Like all of our grouse, the ruffed is capable of flying in bursts but generally prefers a life on the forest floor, close to their food base. Anyone who has bumped into a grouse at close range knows that their sudden and furious explosion of panicked flight can be terrifying, particularly when traveling in grizzly country. Being a large, ground foraging bird does have its disadvantages; even with beautifully mottled camouflage and their gracefully slow, halting movements, ruffed grouse are regularly taken by predators especially Great Horned Owls and where they occur, the elusive Northern Goshawk.
During spring, male grouse famously perch themselves on a prominent log or stump and display their wares for nearby females. The term “ruffed” refers to dark neck feathers of the male which when fully extended, create a striking collar (ruff). Combined with a widely fanned tail and the bird can easily appear twice its natural size. This showmanship frequently accompanies some strutting and a peculiar “drumming” sound; if you have ever heard what sounds like a small engine trying to start somewhere in the woods, it is likely a male ruffed grouse, beating his wings quickly at his side, part of the grand mating display.
When temperatures drop in winter, ruffed grouse will burrow into the snow layer, creating a temporary bivouac which allows them to survive brutal arctic cold snaps that can decimate other bird populations. Grouse will use these improvised snow shelters for up to 24 hours before moving on. This time of year, they consume only course, woody material like the winter buds of willow and birch. If you come across a pile of compacted, sawdust-like droppings during your summer backcountry wanderings, you’ve found the location of a grouse bivouac from the previous winter.
A recent climate change study on North American birds published by National Audubon lists the ruffed grouse as an “at risk” species, along with 313 others from across the continent. How this grouse will adapt in Montana with projected changes to its montane-boreal habitat is unclear, though the wide-ranging study suggests the bird may disappear from its Appalachian range and other areas entirely by 2080. It is difficult to imagine the autumn woods of the future without this species quietly foraging through a colorful understory in dappled light…and harder still to think of how transformed the forest would have to become to be empty of them.
I confess to a special relationship with the ruffed grouse; it was the first animal I ever pursued in the hunt and more recently, the first quarry my young son and I hunted together. That day, we drove to a familiar bit of spruce-aspen forest and began our slow walk in a gorgeous autumn light. After a few minutes, my boy whispers to me, “Papa, look…grouse!” but I am completely blind to them. His young eyes spotted a small covey of birds which, after a maddening eternity of looking, I finally saw directly in front of us. After the shot, the remaining birds quickly sift into the brush and we retrieve a beautiful, limp-necked ruffed grouse, still warm to the touch. My wide-eyed kid is silent.
The weighty moment transported me back to the first time I did this alone, many years ago. I recalled gratefully accepting the bird, both humbled and amazed by it and the tangible sense of mortality. When I was walking out, inattentive and drunk on autumn beauty, another suddenly flushed from the trail. I remember that explosion of feathers and the warm, quick rush of fear; at once a bird, my heart…the woods.