A long season that begins early in the fall, prolific bird numbers, and a low cost of entry make hunting ruffed grouse an excellent pursuit for beginners and long-time hunters alike.
If you’ve taken a stroll through a forest in the northern U.S., you may have heard a distant thrumming—like the putter of a two-stroke engine starting—or had your heart stopped by an explosive burst of wings thrashing through the pines. If you caught a glimpse of the handsome mottled gray, buff, and red feathers, or the mohawk-like crest, you may have identified the culprit as Bonasa umbellus—the ruffed grouse. That drumming sound you heard? A mating call made by the rapid wingbeats of the territorial male of the species.
Aldo Leopold, one of the pioneers of wildlife conservation in the U.S., wrote in “A Sand County Almanac” that “The autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse…subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.” Although there’s certainly more to the health of a complex ecosystem than a single species, Leopold’s writing accurately speaks to the symbolic prominence of this remarkable bird.
Found in wooded areas from the Appalachian range to Alaska, in 38 of the 50 states, the ruffed grouse is the most widely distributed resident North American game bird and among the perfect quarry for those starting out in bird hunting.
They can be successfully pursued with as little as a light shotgun (think 20 gauge or smaller), enough blaze orange to satisfy the DNR, and a comfortable pair of boots. It can be a social hunt with several hunting partners and dogs, or a solo venture into the woods—a perfect opportunity for some quiet introspection and a little fresh air.
How to hunt them
Ruffed grouse season spans from early September to as late as the end of January in some states. If you’re a deer hunter, going on a grouse hunt before the season begins provides the perfect excuse to check on the condition of your stands, clear trails, and familiarize yourself with new terrain while still getting hunting time in. Bag limits span from one bird to as many as five, depending on your state.
Ruffed grouse populations cycle in 10-year intervals, ostensibly corresponding to the natural cycle of snowshoe hares. As the hare population goes down in its cycle, predation on grouse increases, tipping the balance. Even when their numbers are down, you’re almost guaranteed to see one anytime you’re not carrying a shotgun. At least it always seems to work that way.
Ruffed grouse are quick but fairly fragile birds. They can often be found foraging on the ground, hidden in dense shrubs or beneath a thick stand of evergreens. They often hold very tight when danger is close, standing perfectly still as if to blend in with their surroundings. Their coloration enables them to blend in so well, it often works. Or, they may flush, giving you a potentially challenging shot through the trees.
In later months, as winter sets in, keep an eye on the bare treetops of aspen, birch, hazel, and alder trees: ruffed grouse will feed on the buds and catkins.
Hunting ruffed grouse has a long and storied history in the U.S. In fact, its popularity led to some of the first game management efforts in the nation when, at the turn of the 18th century, New York established a closed season on the game bird. Its popularity is certainly warranted: It is unquestionably among the most fun and accessible birds to pursue.