Pennsylvania State Bird – Ruffed Grouse – Bonasa umbellus

State Bird of Pennsylvania

By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.


[Ruffed Grouse.]

[Bonasa umbellus.]


You are now presented, kind reader, with a species of Grouse, which,in my humble opinion, far surpasses as an article of food every other land-birdwhich we have in the United States, except the Wild Turkey, when in goodcondition. You must not be surprised that I thus express an opinion contradictoryto that of our Eastern epicures, who greatly prefer the flesh of the PinnatedGrouse to that of the present species, for I have had abundant opportunityof knowing both. Perhaps, after all, the preference may depend upon a peculiarityin my own taste; or I may give the superiority to the Ruffed Grouse, becauseit is as rarely met with in the Southern States, where I have chiefly resided,as the Pinnated Grouse is in the Middle Districts; and were the bon-vivantsof our eastern cities to be occasionally satiated with the latter birds,as I have been, they might possibly think their flesh as dry and flavourlessas I do.

The names of Pheasant and Partridge have been given to the present speciesby our forefathers, in the different districts where it is found. To thewest of the Alleghanies, and on those mountains, the first name is generallyused. The same appellation is employed in the Middle Districts, to theeast of the mountains, and until you enter the State of Connecticut; afterwhich that of Partridge prevails.

The Ruffed Grouse, although a constant resident in the districts whichit frequents, performs partial sorties at the approach of autumn. Theseare not equal in extent to the peregrinations of the Wild Turkey, our littlePartridge, or the Pinnated Grouse, but are sufficiently so to become observableduring the seasons when certain portions of the mountainous districts whichthey inhabit becomes less abundantly supplied with food than others. Thesepartial movings might not be noticed, were not the birds obliged to flyacross rivers of great breadth, as whilst in the mountain lands their groupsare as numerous as those which attempt these migrations; but on the north-westbanks of the Ohio and Susquehanna rivers, no one who pays the least attentionto the manners and habits of our birds, can fail to observe them. The Grouseapproach the banks of the Ohio in parties of eight or ten, now and thenof twelve or fifteen, and, on arriving there, linger in the woods closeby for a week or a fortnight, as if fearful of encountering the dangerto be incurred in crossing the stream. This usually happens in the beginningof October, when these birds are in the very best order for the table,and at this period great numbers of them are killed. If started from theground, with or without the assistance of a dog, they immediately alighton the nearest trees, and are easily shot. At length, however, they resolveupon crossing the river; and this they accomplish with so much ease, thatI never saw any of them drop into the water. Not more than two or threedays elapse after they have reached the opposite shore, when they at onceproceed to the interior of the forests, in search of places congenial tothe general character of their habits. They now resume their ordinary mannerof living, which they continue until the approach of spring, when the males,as if leading the way, proceed singly towards the country from which theyhad retreated. The females follow in small parties of three or four. Inthe month of October 1820, I observed a larger number of Ruffed Grousemigrating thus from the States of Ohio, Illinois and Indiana into Kentucky,than I had ever before remarked. During the short period of their lingeringalong the north-west shore of the Ohio that season, a great number of themwere killed, and they were sold in the Cincinnati market for so small asum as 12 1/2 cents each.

Although these birds are particularly attached to the craggy sides ofmountains and hills, and the rocky borders of rivers and small streams,thickly mantled with evergreen trees and small shrubs of the same nature,they at times remove to low lands, and even enter the thickest cane-brakes,where they also sometimes breed. I have shot some, and have heard themdrumming in such places, when there were no hills nearer than fifteen ortwenty miles. The lower parts of the State of Indiana and also those ofKentucky, are amongst the places where I have discovered them in such situations.

The charming groves which here and there contrast so beautifully withthe general dull appearance of those parts of Kentucky and Tennessee, towhich the name of Barrens is given, are sought by the Ruffed Grouse. Thesegroves afford them abundant food and security. The gentle coolness thatprevails in them during the summer heat is agreeable and beneficial tothese birds, and the closeness of their undergrowth in other spots moderatesthe cold blasts of winter. There this species breeds, and is at all timesto be found. Their drumming is to be heard issuing from these peacefulretreats in early spring, at the same time that the booming of their relative,the Pinnated Grouse, is recognised, as it reaches the ear of the traveller,from the different parts of the more open country around. In such placesas the groves just mentioned, the species now before you, kind reader,is to be met with, as you travel towards the south, through the whole ofTennessee and the Choctaw Territory; but as you approach the city of Natchezthey disappear, nor have I ever heard of one of these birds having beenseen in the State of Louisiana.

The mountainous parts of the Middle States being more usually the chosenresidence of this species, I shall, with your permission, kind reader,return to them, and try to give you an account of this valuable Grouse.

The flight of the Ruffed Grouse is straight-forward, rather low, unlesswhen the bird has been disturbed, and seldom protracted beyond a few hundredyards at a time. It is also stiff, and performed with a continued beatingof the wings for more than half its duration, after which the bird sailsand seems to balance its body as it proceeds through the air, in the mannerof a vessel sailing right before the wind. When this bird rises from theground at a time when pursued by an enemy, or tracked by a dog, it producesa loud whirring sound, resembling that of the whole tribe, excepting theBlack Cock of Europe, which has less of it than any other species. Thiswhirring sound is never heard when the Grouse rises of its own accord,for the purpose of removing from one place to another; nor, in similarcircumstances, is it commonly produced by our little Partridge. In fact,I do not believe that it is emitted by any species of Grouse, unless whensurprised and forced to rise. I have often been lying on the ground inthe woods or the fields for hours at a time, for the express purpose ofobserving the movements and habits of different birds, and have frequentlyseen a Partridge or a Grouse rise on wing from within a few yards of thespot in which I lay unobserved by them, as gently and softly as any otherbird, and without producing any whirring sound. Nor even when this Grouseascends to the top of a tree, does it make any greater noise than otherbirds of the same size would do.

I have said this much respecting the flight of Grouse, because it isa prevalent opinion, both among sportsmen and naturalists, that the whirringsound produced by birds of that genus, is a necessary effect of their usualmode of flight. But that this is an error, I have abundantly satisfiedmyself by numberless observations.

On the ground, where the Ruffed Grouse spends a large portion of itstime, its motions are peculiarly graceful. It walks with an elevated, firmstep, opening its beautiful tail gently and with a well-marked jet, holdingerect its head, the feathers of which are frequently raised, as are thevelvety tufts of its neck. It poises its body on one foot for several secondsat a time, and utters a soft cluck, which in itself implies a degree ofconfidence in the bird that its tout ensemble is deserving of the noticeof any bystander. Should the bird discover that it is observed, its stepimmediately changes to a rapid run, its head is lowered, the tail is morewidely spread, and if no convenient hiding-place is at hand, it immediatelytakes flight with as much of the whirring sound as it can produce, as ifto prove to the observer, that, when on wing, it cares as little abouthim as the deer pretends to do, when, on being started by the hound, hemakes several lofty bounds, and erects his tail to the breeze. Should theGrouse, however, run into a thicket, or even over a place where many driedleaves lie on the ground, it suddenly stops, squats, and remains closeuntil the danger is over, or until it is forced by a dog or the sportsmanhimself to rise against its wish.

The shooting of Grouse of this species is precarious, and at times verydifficult, on account of the nature of the places which they usually prefer.Should, for instance, a covey of these birds be raised from amongst Laurels(Kalmia latifolia) or the largest species of Bay (Rhododendron maximum),these shrubs so intercept the view of them, that, unless the sportsmanproves quite an adept in the difficult art of pulling the trigger of hisgun at the proper moment, and quickly, his first chance is lost, and thenext is very uncertain. I say still more uncertain, because at this puttingup of the birds, they generally rise higher over the bushes, flying ina straight course, whereas at the second start, they often fly among thelaurels, and rise above them in a circuitous manner, when to follow themalong the barrel of the gun is considerably more difficult. Sometimes,when these birds are found on the sides of a steep hill, the moment theystart, they dive towards the foot of the declivity, take a turn, and flyoff in a direction so different from the one expected, that unless thesportsman is aware of the trick, he may not see them again that day. Theyoung birds often prove equally difficult to be obtained, for as they areraised from amongst the closely tangled laurels, they only fly a few yards,and again drop among them. A smart cur-dog generally proves the best kindon these occasions; for no sooner does he start a covey of Ruffed Grousethan his barking alarms the birds as much as the report of a gun, and causesthem to rise and alight on the nearest trees, on which they may be shotat with great success.

This leads me to remark, that the prevailing notion which exists inalmost every district where these birds are numerous, that on firing atthe lowest bird perched on a tree, the next above will not fly, and thatby continuing to shoot at the lowest in succession, the whole may be killed,is contradicted by my experience; for on every attempt which I have madeto shoot several in this manner on the same tree, my efforts have provedunsuccessful, unless indeed during a fall of snow, when I have killed threeand sometimes four. The same cause produces the same effect on differentbirds. It may happen, however, that in districts covered with deep snowfor several weeks, during severe winters, these birds, becoming emaciatedand weak, may stand a repetition of shots from a person determined to shootGrouse even when they are good for nothing; but, kind reader, this barbaroustaste is, I hope, no more yours than it is mine.

During spring, and towards the latter part of autumn, at which timethe Ruffed Grouse is heard drumming from different parts of the woods towhich it resorts, I have shot many a fine cock by imitating the sound ofits own wings striking against the body, which I did by beating a largeinflated bullock’s bladder with a stick, keeping up as much as possiblethe same time as that in which the bird beats. At the sound produced bythe bladder and the stick, the male Grouse, inflamed with jealousy, hasflown directly towards me, when, being prepared, I have easily shot it.An equally successful stratagem is employed to decoy the males of our littlePartridge by imitating the call-note of the female during spring and summer;but in no instance, after repeated trials, have I been able to entice thePinnated Grouse to come towards me, whilst imitating the booming soundsof that bird.

Early in spring, these birds are frequently seen feeding on the tenderbuds of different trees, and at that season are more easily approachedthan at any other. Unfortunately, however, they have not by this time recoveredtheir flesh sufficiently to render them worthy of the attention of a truesportsman, although their flavour has already improved. When our mountainsare covered with a profusion of huckleberries and whortleberries, aboutthe beginning of September, then is the time for shooting this species,and enjoying the delicious food which it affords.

The Ruffed Grouse, on alighting upon a tree, after being raised fromthe ground, perches amongst the thickest parts of the foliage, and, assumingat once an erect attitude, stands perfectly still, and remains silent untilall appearance of danger has vanished. If discovered when thus perched,it is very easily shot. On rising from the ground, the bird utters a cacklingnote repeated six or seven times, and before taking wing emits a lispingsort of whistle, which seems as if produced by the young of another bird,and is very remarkable.

When the ground is covered with snow sufficiently soft to allow thisbird to conceal itself under it, it dives headlong into it with such forceas to form a hole several yards in length, re-appears at that distance,and continues to elude the pursuit of the sportsman by flight. They aresometimes caught while beneath the snow. Many of them are taken alive intrap boxes during winter, although the more common method of catching orrather destroying them is by setting dead falls with a figure-of-four trigger.

Early in April, the Ruffed Grouse begins to drum immediately after dawn,and again towards the close of day. As the season advances, the drummingis repeated more frequently at all hours of the day; and where these birdsare abundant, this curious sound is heard from all parts of the woods inwhich they reside. The drumming is performed in the following manner. Themale bird, standing erect on a prostrate decayed trunk, raises the feathersof its body, in the manner of a Turkey-cock, draws its head towards itstail, erecting the feathers of the latter at the same time, and raisingits ruff around the neck, suffers its wings to droop, and struts abouton the log. A few moments elapse, when the bird draws the whole of itsfeathers close to its body, and stretching itself out, beats its sideswith its wings, in the manner of the domestic Cock, but more loudly, andwith such rapidity of motion, after a few of the first strokes, as to causea tremor in the air not unlike the rumbling of distant thunder. This, kindreader, is the “drumming” of the Pheasant. In perfectly calmweather, it may be heard at the distance of two hundred yards, but mightbe supposed to proceed from a much greater distance. The female, whichnever drums, flies directly to the place where the male is thus engaged,and, on approaching him, opens her wings before him, balances her bodyto the right and left, and then receives his caresses.

The same trunk is resorted to by the same birds during the season, unlessthey are frequently disturbed. These trunks are easily known by the quantityof excrements and feathers about them. The males have the liberty of promiscuousconcubinage, although not to such an extent as those of the Pinnated Grouse.They have frequent and severe battles at this season, which, although witnessedby the females, are never interrupted by them. The drumming sounds of thesebirds lead to their destruction, every young sportsman taking the unfairadvantage of approaching them at this season, and shooting them in theact.

About the beginning of May, the female retires to some thicket in aclose part of the woods, where she forms a nest. This is placed by theside of a prostrate tree, or at the foot of a low bush, on the ground,in a spot where a heap of dried leaves has been formed by the wind. Thenest is composed of dried leaves and herbaceous plants. The female laysfrom five to twelve eggs, which are of a uniform dull yellowish colour,and are proportionate in size to the bird. The latter never covers themon leaving the nest, and in consequence, the Raven and the Crow, alwayson the look out for such dainties, frequently discover and eat them. Whenthe female is present, however, she generally defends them with great obstinacy,striking the intruder with her wings and feet, in the manner of the CommonHen.

The young run about and follow the mother, the moment after they leavethe egg. They are able to fly for a few yards at a time, when only sixor seven days old, and still very small. The mother leads them in searchof food, covers them at night with her wings, and evinces the greatestcare and affection towards them on the least appearance of danger, tryingby every art in her power to draw the attention of her enemies to herself,feigning lameness, tumbling and rolling about as if severely wounded, andby this means generally succeeding in saving them. The little ones squatat the least chuck of alarm from the mother, and lie so close as to sufferone to catch them in the hand, should he chance to discover them, which,however, it is very difficult to do. The males are then beginning to associatein small parties, and continue separated from the females until the approachof winter, when males, females, and young mingle together. During summer,these birds are fond of dusting themselves, and resort to the roads forthat purpose, as well as to pick up gravel. I have observed this speciescopulating towards autumn, but have not been able to account for this unseasonableprocedure, as only one brood is raised in the season.

These birds have various enemies besides man. Different species of Hawksdestroy them, particularly the Red-tailed Hawk and the Cooper’s Hawk. Theformer watches their motions from the tops of trees, and falls upon themwith the swiftness of thought, whilst the latter seizes upon them as heglides rapidly through the woods. Pole-cats, weasels, racoons, opossums,and foxes, are all destructive foes to them. Of these, some are contentwith sucking their eggs, while others feed on their flesh.

I have found these birds most numerous in the States of Pennsylvaniaand New York. They are brought to the markets in great numbers, duringthe winter months, and sell at from 75 cents to a dollar apiece, in theeastern cities. At Pittsburg I have bought them, some years ago, for 121/2 cents the pair. It is said that when they have fed for several weekson the leaves of the Kalmia latifolia, it is dangerous to eat their flesh,and I believe laws have been passed to prevent their being sold at thatseason. I have, however, eaten them at all seasons, and although I havefound their crops distended with the leaves of the Kalmia, have never feltthe least inconvenience after eating them, nor even perceived any differenceof taste in their flesh. I suspect it is only when the birds have beenkept a long time undrawn and unplucked, that the flesh becomes impregnatedwith the juice of these leaves.

The food of this species consists of seeds and berries of all kinds,according to the season. It also feeds on the leaves of several speciesof evergreens, Although these are only resorted to when other food hasbecome scarce. They are particularly fond of fox-grapes and winter-grapes,as well as strawberries and dewberries. To procure the latter, they issuefrom the groves of the Kentucky Barrens, and often stray to the distanceof a mile. They roost on trees, amongst the thickest parts of the foliage,sitting at some distance from each other, and may easily be smoked to death,by using the necessary precautions.

I cannot conclude this article, kind reader, without observing how desirablethe acquisition of this species might be to the sportsmen of Europe, andespecially to those of England, where I am surprised it has not yet beenintroduced. The size of these birds, the beauty of their plumage, the excellenceof their flesh, and their peculiar mode of flying, would render them valuable,and add greatly to the interest of the already diversified sports of thatcountry. In England and Scotland there are thousands of situations thatare by nature perfectly suited to their habits, and I have not a doubtthat a few years of attention would be sufficient to render them quiteas common as the Grey Partridge.

It is now ascertained that this species extends over the whole breadthof the Continent, it being found from our Atlantic districts to those borderingthe Pacific Ocean, Mr. TOWNSEND having observed it on the Missouri andalong the Columbia river, and Mr. DRUMMOND having procured specimens inthe valleys of the Columbia river. According to Dr. RICHARDSON, it reachesnorthward as far as the 56th parallel, and spends the winter on the banksof the Saskatchewan, where it is plentiful. It also exists in the Texas.It is more abundant in our western, middle, and eastern districts thanin our southern states. In the maritime portions of South Carolina it doesnot exist. In Massachusetts, Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, itis very plentiful; but I saw none in Labrador, although I was assured thatit occurs there, and did not hear of it in Newfoundland.

RUFFED GROUSE, Tetrao umbellus, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. vi. p.46.
TETRAO UMBELLUS, Bonap. Syn., p. 126.
TETRAO UMBELLUS, Ruffed Grouse, Swains. & Rich. F. Bor. Amer.,vol. ii. p. 342.
RUFFED GROUSE, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 657.
RUFFED GROUSE, Tetrao umbellus, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. i. p. 211;vol.v. p. 560.

Male, 18, 24.

Common from Maryland to Labrador, and in the interior from the mountainousdistricts to Canada and the Saskatchewan. Columbia river. Resident.

Adult Male.

Bill short, robust, slightly arched, rather obtuse, the base coveredby feathers; upper mandible with the dorsal outline straight in the featheredpart, convex towards the end, the edges overlapping, the tip declinate;under mandible somewhat bulging toward the tip, the sides convex. Nostrilsconcealed among the feathers. Head and neck small. Body bulky. Feet ofordinary length; tarsus feathered, excepting at the lower part anteriorly,where it is scutellate, spurless; toes scutellate above, pectinated onthe sides; claws arched, depressed, obtuse.

Plumage compact, glossy. Feathers of the head narrow and elongated intoa curved tuft. A large space on the neck destitute of feathers, but coveredover by an erectile ruff of elongated feathers, of which the upper aresilky, shining, and curved forwards at the end, which is very broad androunded. Wings short, broad, much rounded and curved, the third and fourthquills longest. Tail long, ample, rounded, of eighteen feathers.

Bill horn-colour, brownish-black towards the tip. Iris hazel. Feet yellowish-grey.Upper part of the head and hind part of the neck bright yellowish-red.Back rich chestnut, marked with oblong white spots, margined with black.Upper wing-coverts similar to the back. Quills brownish-dusky, their outerwebs pale reddish, spotted with dusky. Upper tail-coverts banded with black.Tail reddish-yellow, barred and minutely mottled with black, and terminatedby a broad band of the latter colour, between two narrow bands of bluish-white,of which one is terminal. A yellowish-white band from the upper mandibleto the eye, beyond which it is prolonged. Throat and lower part of theneck light brownish-yellow. Lower ruff feathers of the same colour, barredwith reddish-brown, the upper black, with blue reflections. A tuft of lightchestnut feathers under the wings. The rest of the under parts yellowish-white,with broad transverse spots of brownish-red; the abdomen yellowish-red;and the under tail-coverts mottled with brown.

Length 18 inches, extent of wings 2 feet; bill along the ridge 3/4,along the gap 1 1/2; tarsus 1 7/12, middle toe 1 3/4.

Adult Female.

The plumage of the female is less developed and inferior in beauty.The feathers of the head and ruff are less elongated, the latter of a dullerblack. The tints of the plumage generally are lighter than in the male.

A remarkable difference of plumage is observed in specimens from theopposite parts of the continent, those from the eastern districts beinginvariably much greyer, especially on the tail-feathers, than those procuredalong the Ohio, or in Virginia. These constant differences have temptedsome persons to suppose that we have two nearly allied species, insteadof one; but after the closest examination of all their parts, as well asof their habits, I never could find any thing tending to support this supposition.In some instances, the eggs of what I conceive a young female, have provedmuch smaller than others, and Dr. T. M. BREWER has procured in Massachusettsa laying of them minutely spotted with dull reddish-brown, on a groundof a light salmon colour. The eggs usually measure an inch and a half inlength, by an inch and two-twelfths in breadth, and are of a uniform dullyellowish tint.

In this species the palate is flat, with two longitudinal ridges converginganteriorly; the space between these ridges and the slit covered with smallpapillae. The tongue is triangular, flattened, sagittate and papillateat the base, 9 twelfths long, fleshy and pointed. The width of the mouthis 8 twelfths. The liver is extremely small, its lobes equal, and 1 inchin length. The heart is also small, 11 twelfths long, 7 twelfths in breadth.The oesophagus, [a b f], is 7 1/4 inches in length; for three inches, [ab], it has a width of only 5 twelfths; it then enlarges to form a vastcrop, [b c d], 3 1/2 inches in breadth, and 2 1/2 inches in length, thatpart of it connected with which is 1 inch 5 twelfths in length; it thencontracts to 1/2 inch, [e]; the proventriculus, [e f], 7 1/2 twelfths inbreadth. The stomach, [c d], is a very powerful muscular gizzard, 1 inch8 twelfths long, 1 inch 9 twelfths broad; the inferior muscle very large,1 twelfth thick; the lateral muscles extremely developed, the left 6 twelfths,the right 5 twelfths in thickness; the epithelium thick, tough, yellowish-brown,with two concave surfaces, which are deeply grooved longitudinally. Theproventricular glands are large, 3 twelfths long, occupying a space ofonly 7 twelfths of an inch in breadth. The duodenum, [h i], curves at thedistance of 4 inches. The intestine, [h i j k], is 4 feet 1 inch long;the coeca come off at the distance of 6 1/4 inches from the extremity;one of them 17 1/2, the other 16 1/2 inches long; their width for threeinches 4 twelfths, in the rest of their extent 6 twelfths; they are narrowedtoward the end, and terminate in a blunt nipple-like point; their innersurface has 7 longitudinal ridges, and they are filled with a pultaceousmass. The width of the duodenum is 5 1/2 twelfths; that of the greaterpart of the rest of the intestine 6 twelfths; the cloaca, [k], is not enlarged.

The trachea is 6 inches long, rather slender, its breadth at the top3 twelfths, at the lower part 2 1/2 twelfths. The rings are feeble andunossified, 100 in number. There are no inferior laryngeal muscles. Thebronchi are very short, rather wide, of about 12 half rings. The lateralmuscles are rather large, the sterno-tracheal slips moderate.

Portions copyright © Richard R. Buonanno, 1995
Web version of John James Audubon’s work. “The Birds of America”
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