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Tips on Grouse for Hunters and Photographers

Oct 31, 2007
The most prized game bird of upland game hunters in the northern belt of states is the ruffed grouse, one of a large family of birds that inhabit North America. In the same family is the pinnated grouse commonly known as the prairie chicken. Other members of the family include the dusky grouse of the west, Franklin's grouse of the Pacific states, the Hudsonian grouse of northern Canada, sharp-tailed grouse of the western plains states and their numerous subspecies.

The grouse is almost impossible to raise in captivity, so its restocking is much more difficult than with other birds. Mother Nature, then, is the grouse's only guide, with man its best friend and protector. Nature takes care of the grouse by constantly varying the cycle of abundance.

When the birds become too crowded in a certain area, she steps in with a disease which all but eliminates the species. Then, for a few years, the number of birds gradually increases again. Most conservation authorities have tried to follow these natural cycles in an effort to keep the birds at a more even level.

Grouse are readily identified by the black and brown-banded fan-shaped tail, the two tufts or ruffs on each side of the neck and the crested head. Both male and female are colored alike. There are two general hues of color, one gray and the other rust-red.

The most interesting time of the year is in the spring, when they are in the mating mood and when they can be seen and photographed while drumming on a log to attract a female. The whirr of their wings can be heard for some distance in the woods, as they vibrate their flight feathers in a terrific dance to impress their mate-to-be. At this time it is possible to approach with the camera for some excellent photos of the courtship.

Their flight when aroused is quick and erratic. They explode from the brush and quite often the gunner or observer is shocked momentarily because of the sudden sound coming from almost beneath his feet. The course of flight from there on out will be one of zig-zags through the leaves and branches as the bird tries to put as much natural cover between himself and you.

No two grouse ever rise in the same way, so there is no characteristic flight to study in order to be a better shot. Hunters who are successful on grouse shoot instinctively. Somehow or other their shotgun barrels seem to point in the right direction, with enough lead to deliver the shot pattern on target. They are even harder to photograph because their course in the air is so unpredictable.

Grouse are best hunted with dogs, preferably a springer spaniel or perhaps an English setter. These dogs should be trained for grouse specifically, since grouse act entirely differently than pheasants or other game birds. A good quail dog is often at a loss, due to a strange and complicated terrain.

The perfect experience is enjoyed with a good dog who is able to locate a grouse on the ground and hold it on point until the hunter moves up to flush it. If the bird is shot, its coloration blends so perfectly with the forest floor that the dog, with his keen sense of smell is relied upon to fetch it.

Grouse usually live to an age of about six years and are able to stand the severe winters of the northern climes. They are smart too, and in recent years boldly hold out in the face of real estate developments and advancing civilization. The key to their survival is food, mostly berries and seeds, and a good supply of unpolluted water. They prefer to live near the hemlock and pine forests where they can dodge their predators and take flight into the thick trees. Near their protective haunts, they must have a generous food supply year-round.

With these pointers in mind, the hunter and photographer alike should enjoy the beauty of the grouse.
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