Monday, February 23, 2015

Birdlore: Ruffed Grouse, The Drumming Bird

As the snow slowly melts away and the buds and greens of the new season spring forth, a rapid thumping resonates throughout the deep woods. 

Is that a drum you ask? Is someone chopping a log?

Nay!  The Ruffed Grouse sits atop his ‘drumming log’ beating his wings frantically in a territorial and courtship display!

A male Ruffed Grouse fanning his tail feathers and extending his neck feathers (creating a ruff) in a courtship display.
(photo: the wikipedia files)

In the northern reaches of North America, the Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) lives in the thick bush of mixed hardwood trees.  When male ruffed grouse set out from their wintering areas to claim their own territory, they select a ‘drumming log’ as a stage for their display.  They do not beat their wings on the log or their breast to create this ‘thumping’ noise.  Rather, the speed at which they flap their wings in the air creates a temporary vacuum and a ‘thump’ results when air rushes in to fill the empty space.

The male will use this display year around on his ‘drumming log’ to announce his territory, but will increase in frequency during the spring mating season.  Once the males attract a prospective mate, they will initiate a brief courtship before actually mating.  The female leaves afterwards to establish her nest while the male waits for other receptive females.

The main avian predator of the Ruffed Grouse is the Northern Goshawk.   The Ruffed Grouse is a popular game bird for human hunters in the proper hunting season. The bird is often improperly referred to as a partridge, which is a smaller game bird related to grouse. 

One Native American tale tells how the thumping of the partridge made him the canoe-builder for all the birds.

“An Algonquin Tale:  How the Partridge built good canoes for all the birds and a bad one for himself.

As a partridge thumps a hollow log he sounds much like an Indian chopping and carving into a great log to create a canoe.  For in the ancient days, the Partridge was the builder of canoes for all birds of the earth.

On a chosen day, all the birds came together to receive their canoe, and what a grand sight it was to behold.  First the greatest of all the birds, the Eagle, entered his hollowed out log and pushed off into the water using the tips of his wings.  Then came the Owl, the Crane, the Bluebird, the Snipe, and the Blackbird all racing away proudly across the water in their canoes.  Even the diminutive Humming-Bird sailed in an elegant little boat with a specially made paddle provided by the good Partridge.

As the birds sailed proudly in their canoes, their attention turned back to Partridge, the canoe-builder, and asked why he did not have a canoe of his own.  Partridge remained closed mouthed and looked away.  Persistent, the other birds questioned him further and finally he relented and hinted that his canoe would be a marvel, a wonder, something only possible to conjure up in a dream.  So for many days, the birds waited for Partridge’s masterpiece.

Finally, at long last, a roar rose among the birds that Partridge’s canoe was ready.  At a designated time, all the birds gathered at the water’s shores to behold the marvel.  Partridge had pondered that if a canoe with two ends could be rowed in two different directions, surely, a boat that was completely round, like a nest, could be rowed in any direction.  His idea amazed all the birds that such a simple idea had not yet been done.

Yet, what should happen when Partridge entered the water with his marvelous canoe?

He would paddle and paddle, but no distance could he cover for he would turn in endless circles no matter his effort.  Weary and tired, he fled from the canoe to shore and hid beneath low bushes, too embarrassed to come out.  To this day the Partridge steers clear of seas and rivers and remains an inland bird.”

Submitted by Jessica Bunke, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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