Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Male grouse © Herbert Lange

Drumming in spring advertises the male grouse’s whereabouts and attracts a female.
© Herbert Lange

June 2013

King of the forest

The grouse drum beats.

Birney Dibble

Quietly, tensely alert, he stalks through the leafless tag alders with the aplomb of a king reviewing his honor guard. He lifts each three-toed foot with infinite precision and places it unerringly directly in front of him. With each step his crowned head bobs in concert. It‘s a chicken-like bob, but there‘s nothing ludicrous nor unseemly about it. Rather, it conveys an artistry, the posturing of a noble aristocrat.

A sudden gust of wind swooshes through the alders. Overhead a small branch cracks like a pistol shot. The ruffed grouse freezes, feathers sleek, tail pointed straight down, neck elongated, head up and beak outstretched. Take your eyes off him, and then look back. He‘s gone, and in his place is a short broken–off stump–with one beady eye searching the hostile forest. Imperceptibly his head turns in a full half circle, and you see the other eye, dark brown, almost black.

For a full minute, perhaps longer, he remains motionless. Slowly his head comes around again and he resumes his trek.

He enters a dense stand of red pines, some mere saplings, but most 20 to 30 years old, sired by a 200-year-old giant who still stands only 50 feet away from the grouse ‘s destination. Without pausing even for a moment, the grouse jumps up onto a huge log 30 feet long and almost 2 feet in diameter. Still without hesitation, he struts directly to the exact spot on the log where he drummed last year, and where he has drummed this year since the snow melted and the vernal equinox turned winter into spring.

The downed tree which the grouse has claimed is covered with thick, dark green moss except for a small spot measuring about 3 by 5 inches. Here, where his feet have dug in hundreds of times, he has worn away the moss and soft grey outside wood and exposed the yellow inner timber. On the log and on the ground are his droppings, the fresh ones small grey cylinders, the older ones like fluffy, light brown caterpillars.

 Male grouse spreading its tail  © Herbert Lange
The ruffed grouse spreads its tall and presses it against the log, then begins a series of strong wing strokes.
© Herbert Lange

Motionless he stands, tail furled behind him, wings cupped easily at his side, breast thrust out slightly, neck elongated, beak pointing straight in front of him. His black eye is accented by spots of white directly fore and aft. His brownish crest is thrown upward several inches and blows gently in the breeze.

"Here am I," his manner says, "the king. Here am I, the lord of this part of the forest. This is my log, my pines, my oaks and alders, my lake there through the scrub. This is where I live, and where my mate will come to meet me, and where I will die. And this is where I drum."

For half a minute his head turns slowly from side-to-side. He scours the shadows for fox and feral cat, scans the skies for hawk and owl. His tail is now partially fanned out, the black and white bars showing plainly in the bright sunlight.

Deftly he drops the tip of his tail onto the log and locks it there for balance. He puffs out his crest, wiggles his shoulders a little as if to arrange them into the proper slot, and then settles his whole body downward so that his rump is only an inch off the log. He no longer bears any resemblance to the graceful grouse who just pranced to his drumming spot. Rather he is a rectangular mass of feathers perpendicular to the ground.

With a quick but easily perceived motion he flips his wings straight backward and swings them together in front of him with a swift clapping movement.

A deep boom resounds through the brush. Even though you are watching the production of the sound, you scarcely can believe that it didn‘t come from behind you or above you or a hundred yards behind the grouse in the forest.

Still maintaining his rectangular shape, he settles his shoulders and slumps his body, then beats the air again – and again – and again. Each boom follows the previous one by a slightly decreased interval of time, until his wings are a brownish blurrrr and the sound a ventriloquistic whirrrrrrrr. His wings never touch in front of him, nor do they ever touch his body.

Coincidental with the finish of the drumming, he tucks his wings against his body and with one fluid motion straightens his legs, throws his tail up behind him and fans it.

The entire performance has taken 11 seconds.

Proudly he stands, inert, alert and wary. Then he seems to relax just a bit, his neck not stretched out quite so far. His tail not quite so stiff.

He rests.

For about three minutes.

Then he gradually regains the regal pose he affected only minutes before. His head turns slowly, his eyes catching every subtle movement in his immediate environment.

Then his tail drops, his breast puffs like a pigeon's, his body settles onto the log, his wings flip backward.

And he drums.

He drums for hours, every two to four minutes. Then without warning he slowly marches down the log toward the root end, leaps gently to the ground, and disappears into the shadows. A few hours later, fed and rested, he wends his way back. He hops up and takes his place on the worn yellow spot on the moss-green log.

Poor bird, you think, tied inexorably to his instincts, drumming incessantly, off and on, night and day –and then you realize that this is what it's all about for a ruffed grouse. He drums because he has to, because he wants to, because he would be frustrated if he couldn ‘t.

He's there still, as I pen these words, establishing his niche in the ecosystem, regal and haughty, the little drummer boy grown up into an imperial, majestic, sovereign soul.

The king of the forest.

Birney Dibble writes from Eau Claire. He recalls that the grouse he wrote about drummed for three days just 30 feet outside his cabin window in northern Wisconsin.