Ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus)

GenusBonasa (1)
SizeMale length: 43 - 50 cm (2)
Female length: 40 - 47 cm (2)
Male weight: 500 - 750 g (2)
Female weight: 450 - 600 g (2)
Wingspan: 55.9 - 63.5 cm (3)
Top facts

The ruffed grouse is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The state bird of Pennsylvania (4), the ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) gets its name from the tufts of black feathers on its neck, which are raised into a ruff by the male during its courtship display (2) (4) (5) (6) (7).

The cryptic colouration of the ruffed grouse is generally mottled grey, brown, buff and black (2) (6) (8). The plumage is lighter and barred on the lower breast and belly (2) (7). Two colour morphs of this species exist: a grey morph and a red morph, with the differences between them being most noticeable on the dorsal parts of the bird, particularly the tail (2) (4) (6) (7) (8).

The grey morph is dominant in the northern parts of the ruffed grouse’s range, while the red morph predominates in the south (2) (5). Intermediates between these are also known to occur (2) (6).

Other key features of the ruffed grouse’s plumage include a short, ragged head crest (2) (4) (5) (7) (8), and a square tail (6), which has a broad, black band towards the tip (2) (5) and can be fanned out (5) (6) (8). The ruffed grouse has feathers that extend from the forehead over the thick, brown, curved bill (6).

As in other grouse species, the legs of the ruffed grouse are also covered in fine, wispy feathers all the way down to the ankle (2) (6) (8), while the grey-blue feet are bare (6). During the autumn, the ruffed grouse grows numerous rows of firm protrusions, called pectinations, along the outside edge of its toes (2) (5) (6) (8). These growths are thought to help the ruffed grouse to walk on snow and cling to icy branches, and are shed in the spring (2) (5) (6). 

Both sexes of the ruffed grouse look very similar, and the tail patterning is one of the few ways in which the plumage of the male differs from that of the female (4) (6) (8). The tail band of the female is often broken and the rump feathers each contain a single dot, while the tail band of the male is unbroken and the rump feathers contain more than one white dot each (4) (8). The male ruffed grouse typically has a red or orange eye comb, a coloured patch above the eye, whereas the eye comb is less distinct or absent in the female (2) (8).

The juvenile ruffed grouse looks similar to the female, but does not have the dark band near the tip of the tail and it has a less distinctly marked head (2). Ruffed grouse chicks are tan coloured with dark brown stripes (3).

Twelve subspecies of ruffed grouse are currently recognised, each differing slightly in size, colour and food habits (6).

The ruffed grouse is native to Canada and the United States. It has also been introduced to the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, both of which are French territories in the north-western Atlantic Ocean (9).

In the United States, the ruffed grouse can be found as far north as central Alaska, and as far south as northern Georgia (2) (6). This species is found in at least 38 states of the USA, as well as in all Canadian provinces and territories (6).

The ruffed grouse can be found in a wide variety of temperate, boreal and montane forests (10). However, this species tends to prefer mixed woodland (4) (8) (11) rich in aspen (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8), poplar (2) (7) and birch (7) (8).

In the more southern parts of its range, the ruffed grouse favours areas of mixed hardwood (5), including oak and hickory (6).

Although this species prefers dense, woody cover (6), the presence of small openings in the trees is an important habitat component for the ruffed grouse (11). The ruffed grouse is also often found in edge habitats such as overgrown shrubby pastures (3) (5) and orchards, or the margins of wetlands (5).

In the autumn, the ruffed grouse commonly uses overgrown apple orchards and thickets of alder, hawthorn or blackberry as feeding and cover sites (5).

The ruffed grouse is a non-migratory bird (4), and despite being a swift and acrobatic flier (6), this species spends most of its time on the ground (4), tending to walk rather than fly (6). If disturbed, the ruffed grouse may explode into flight (4), but these bursts of flight are generally short-lived (5) (6).

An alarmed ruffed grouse, particularly a female with chicks, emits a clucking or whining sound (5). A variety of hissing, chirping and peeping sounds are also produced by this species (2).

The omnivorous ruffed grouse has a varied diet, and consumes leaves, buds, seeds and fruit (4) (6) (8), as well as insects (4) (8) (11) and other invertebrates (3) (5). In the winter, the primary food source for this species is buds, particularly aspen catkin buds (1) (2) (3) (5) (6) (8) which are high in sugar and protein (6). Poplar (7) (11) and birch are also frequently eaten (3). In the spring, the ruffed grouse feeds on the new leaves and shoots of a variety of plants, including trees, shrubs and dandelions (3) (5). Ripening fruits, including blackberries and blueberries (3) (5), form the basis of this species’ diet in the summer (7) (11). Ruffed grouse chicks feed on small insects and spiders (5) (7) (11).

The male ruffed grouse attracts females with a rather noisy courtship display involving ‘drumming’, which is performed on a raised platform such as a log (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (11). The male bird rapidly flaps its wings in front of its body, creating a loud thumping noise (2) (5) which can be heard more than a quarter of a mile away (3) (5). As the female approaches, the male struts along the log (5) (8) with its tail fanned out (3) (8) (11) and its ruff and crest erect (5) (11), hissing while dragging its wingtips along the ground (3).

Mating generally takes place in April and May (3), but males also drum at other times of the year as a means of defending their territories (2) (3) (6). No genuine pair bond is formed in the ruffed grouse (5), and a male may mate with several hens during the breeding season (3) (5). The male plays no part in nesting or the rearing of the chicks (3).

The female ruffed grouse builds a nest on the ground (3) (4) (11), usually a hollow scrape lined with dry leaves (3) (5), pine needles and some feathers (3) (11). The nest of the ruffed grouse is usually located at the base of a tree or near a fallen log (5) (11) in an area which is well camouflaged by low vegetation (5).

The female ruffed grouse lays between 9 and 12 eggs (3) (5), which are buff-coloured with brown speckles (3) (5) (11). The eggs are incubated for approximately 24 days (5) (11), and the precocial chicks (3) (5) are able to feed themselves straight away (3) (11). Ruffed grouse chicks fledge after about 12 days (5) (11).

There are currently no known major threats to the ruffed grouse. However, it is a popular game species and is hunted across its range. In Canada, the ruffed grouse is generally widespread, but in other parts of its range there have been declines in population densities, mainly as a result of habitat loss (4).

As a popular game species, the ruffed grouse is protected through the monitoring and control of harvests. This is done by establishing bag limits, and enforcing hunting season lengths and area closures within the species’ habitat (2).

The ruffed grouse is found in several protected areas, including state and national parks. Habitat management programmes which have been designed to favour the ruffed grouse have also been implemented in many parts of its range. These programmes also contribute to the conservation of various other forest species (10).

Priority areas for ruffed grouse conservation include habitat preservation, such as the maintenance of habitat corridors, and the monitoring of scattered populations (10).

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  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2012)
  2. Witmer, M.C., Mountjoy, D.J. and Elliot, L. (1997) Ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  3. Fergus, C. (2003) Wildlife of Virginia and Maryland and Washington, Part 3. Stackpole Books, Pennsylvania.
  4. MobileReference (2008) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of North American Birds: An Essential Guide to Common Birds of North America. MobileReference, Boston.
  5. Eastman, J.A. (1997) Birds of Forest, Yard, and Thicket. Stackpole Books, Pennsylvania.
  6. Furtman, M. (2004) Ruffed Grouse: Woodland Drummer. Stackpole Books, Pennsylvania.
  7. Deal, K.H. (2010) Wildlife and Natural Resource Management. Cengage Learning, Kentucky.
  8. Smith, C.S. (2000) Field Guide to Upland Birds and Waterfowl. Wilderness Adventures Press, Montana.
  9. BirdLife International (April, 2012)
  10. Storch, I. (Compiler) (2000) Grouse Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan 2000-2004. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, and Cambridge, UK, and the World Pheasant Association, Reading.
  11. Semenchuk, G.P. and the Federation of Alberta Naturalists. (1992) The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Alberta. Nature Alberta, Canada.