Depending where you live, the term “grouse” can refer to different birds.
The most widespread, ruffed grouse can be found everywhere but the most northern reaches of Ontario. Named for the ruff of darker feathers around the bird’s neck, this feature is more noticeable in males when they puff out those feathers while trying to attract a mate or defending territory.
A dark band near the base of the tail is another unique identifier for ruffies, which weigh about 1 to 1.5 pounds. Both sexes have a crest on top of their head. The drumming of male grouse is a welcome sign of spring across the bird’s range. The familiar staccato sound is created by air filling the vacuum created by the bird’s rapidly beating wings.
Ruffed grouse like deciduous forest in various phases but spend a lot of their lives in early successional forest. This young growth is usually associated with denser cover with higher stem counts. The loss of early successional forest is one of the major threats facing grouse in southern parts of the province.
Something unique about ruffed grouse is that these birds, which are often hunted with flushing and pointing dogs, are a wary target exploding out of cover in the south. In the north, however, they are easily approached and known as fool hens.
Ruffed grouse populations are cyclic in the northern part of the province, and lower in the south, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF).
“Populations of these species are difficult to monitor over large spatial scales, particularly in relatively inaccessible parts of northern Ontario,” MNRF Senior Wildlife Biologist and Policy Advisor Patrick Hubert said.
The spruce grouse is found in coniferous forests, roughly north of a line from the east of Georgian Bay to the Quebec border.
The spruce grouse is similar in size to the ruffed. It is darker in colour and has a red comb above the eye. The spruce grouse is even more tolerant of humans and it’s common for people to be able to walk up to them. This is why the bird is also known as a fool hen.
Due to a strong taste of juniper berries and its darker meat, spruce grouse is considered the least desirable table fare.
The largest of Ontario’s grouse can be found in the northwest and the James Bay area.
The sharp-tailed looks similar to the ruffed with a crest on the head and variegated brown colours. Instead of having a rounded tail, however, its tail comes to a point, without the dark band. The sharp- tailed is white on the underside. Sharp-tailed grouse typically weigh 1.3 to 1.9 pounds. Male sharp-tailed grouse have a yellow patch over the eye and a purple patch on the neck.
A bird of more open areas, the sharp-tailed grouse is often found in cover with a mixture of grasslands and trees, in forestry clear cuts or recently burned areas of a coniferous forests.
Sharp-tailed grouse are known for their unique mating dance in leks, or courtship areas, where single or multiple males will perform a mating dance.
Originally published in the Nov.-Dec. 2022 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS