Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE RUFFED GROUSE.
(State Bird of Pennsylvania)
TETRAO UMBELLUS, Linn.
PLATE CCXCIII.--MALES AND FEMALE.
You are now presented, kind reader, with a species of Grouse, which, in my
humble opinion, far surpasses as an article of food every other land-bird which
we have in the United States, except the Wild Turkey, when in good condition.
You must not be surprised that I thus express an opinion contradictory to that
of our Eastern epicures, who greatly prefer the flesh of the Pinnated Grouse to
that of the present species, for I have had abundant opportunity of knowing
both. Perhaps, after all, the preference may depend upon a peculiarity in my
own taste; or I may give the superiority to the Ruffed Grouse, because it is as
rarely met with in the Southern States, where I have chiefly resided, as the
Pinnated Grouse is in the Middle Districts; and were the bon-vivants of our
eastern cities to be occasionally satiated with the latter birds, as I have
been, they might possibly think their flesh as dry and flavourless as I do.
The names of Pheasant and Partridge have been given to the present species
by our forefathers, in the different districts where it is found. To the west
of the Alleghanies, and on those mountains, the first name is generally used.
The same appellation is employed in the Middle Districts, to the east of the
mountains, and until you enter the State of Connecticut; after which that of
The Ruffed Grouse, although a constant resident in the districts which it
frequents, performs partial sorties at the approach of autumn. These are not
equal in extent to the peregrinations of the Wild Turkey, our little Partridge,
or the Pinnated Grouse, but are sufficiently so to become observable during the
seasons when certain portions of the mountainous districts which they inhabit
becomes less abundantly supplied with food than others. These partial movings
might not be noticed, were not the birds obliged to fly across rivers of great
breadth, as whilst in the mountain lands their groups are as numerous as those
which attempt these migrations; but on the north-west banks of the Ohio and
Susquehanna rivers, no one who pays the least attention to the manners and
habits of our birds, can fail to observe them. The Grouse approach the banks of
the Ohio in parties of eight or ten, now and then of twelve or fifteen, and, on
arriving there, linger in the woods close by for a week or a fortnight, as if
fearful of encountering the danger to be incurred in crossing the stream. This
usually happens in the beginning of October, when these birds are in the very
best order for the table, and at this period great numbers of them are killed.
If started from the ground, with or without the assistance of a dog, they
immediately alight on the nearest trees, and are easily shot. At length,
however, they resolve upon crossing the river; and this they accomplish with so
much ease, that I never saw any of them drop into the water. Not more than two
or three days elapse after they have reached the opposite shore, when they at
once proceed to the interior of the forests, in search of places congenial to
the general character of their habits. They now resume their ordinary manner of
living, which they continue until the approach of spring, when the males, as if
leading the way, proceed singly towards the country from which they had
retreated. The females follow in small parties of three or four. In the month
of October 1820, I observed a larger number of Ruffed Grouse migrating thus from
the States of Ohio, Illinois and Indiana into Kentucky, than I had ever before
remarked. During the short period of their lingering along the north-west shore
of the Ohio that season, a great number of them were killed, and they were sold
in the Cincinnati market for so small a sum as 12 1/2 cents each.
Although these birds are particularly attached to the craggy sides of
mountains and hills, and the rocky borders of rivers and small streams, thickly
mantled with evergreen trees and small shrubs of the same nature, they at times
remove to low lands, and even enter the thickest cane-brakes, where they also
sometimes breed. I have shot some, and have heard them drumming in such places,
when there were no hills nearer than fifteen or twenty miles. The lower parts
of the State of Indiana and also those of Kentucky, are amongst the places where
I have discovered them in such situations.
The charming groves which here and there contrast so beautifully with the
general dull appearance of those parts of Kentucky and Tennessee, to which the
name of Barrens is given, are sought by the Ruffed Grouse. These groves afford
them abundant food and security. The gentle coolness that prevails in them
during the summer heat is agreeable and beneficial to these birds, and the
closeness of their undergrowth in other spots moderates the cold blasts of
winter. There this species breeds, and is at all times to be found. Their
drumming is to be heard issuing from these peaceful retreats in early spring, at
the same time that the booming of their relative, the Pinnated Grouse, is
recognised, as it reaches the ear of the traveller, from the different parts of
the more open country around. In such places as the groves just mentioned, the
species now before you, kind reader, is to be met with, as you travel towards
the south, through the whole of Tennessee and the Choctaw Territory; but as you
approach the city of Natchez they disappear, nor have I ever heard of one of
these birds having been seen in the State of Louisiana.
The mountainous parts of the Middle States being more usually the chosen
residence of this species, I shall, with your permission, kind reader, return to
them, and try to give you an account of this valuable Grouse.
The flight of the Ruffed Grouse is straight-forward, rather low, unless
when the bird has been disturbed, and seldom protracted beyond a few hundred
yards at a time. It is also stiff, and performed with a continued beating of
the wings for more than half its duration, after which the bird sails and seems
to balance its body as it proceeds through the air, in the manner of a vessel
sailing right before the wind. When this bird rises from the ground at a time
when pursued by an enemy, or tracked by a dog, it produces a loud whirring
sound, resembling that of the whole tribe, excepting the Black Cock of Europe,
which has less of it than any other species. This whirring sound is never heard
when the Grouse rises of its own accord, for the purpose of removing from one
place to another; nor, in similar circumstances, is it commonly produced by our
little Partridge. In fact, I do not believe that it is emitted by any species
of Grouse, unless when surprised and forced to rise. I have often been lying on
the ground in the woods or the fields for hours at a time, for the express
purpose of observing the movements and habits of different birds, and have
frequently seen a Partridge or a Grouse rise on wing from within a few yards of
the spot in which I lay unobserved by them, as gently and softly as any other
bird, and without producing any whirring sound. Nor even when this Grouse
ascends to the top of a tree, does it make any greater noise than other birds of
the same size would do.
I have said this much respecting the flight of Grouse, because it is a
prevalent opinion, both among sportsmen and naturalists, that the whirring sound
produced by birds of that genus, is a necessary effect of their usual mode of
flight. But that this is an error, I have abundantly satisfied myself by
On the ground, where the Ruffed Grouse spends a large portion of its time,
its motions are peculiarly graceful. It walks with an elevated, firm step,
opening its beautiful tail gently and with a well-marked jet, holding erect its
head, the feathers of which are frequently raised, as are the velvety tufts of
its neck. It poises its body on one foot for several seconds at a time, and
utters a soft cluck, which in itself implies a degree of confidence in the bird
that its tout ensemble is deserving of the notice of any bystander. Should the
bird discover that it is observed, its step immediately changes to a rapid run,
its head is lowered, the tail is more widely spread, and if no convenient
hiding-place is at hand, it immediately takes flight with as much of the
whirring sound as it can produce, as if to prove to the observer, that, when on
wing, it cares as little about him as the deer pretends to do, when, on being
started by the hound, he makes several lofty bounds, and erects his tail to the
breeze. Should the Grouse, however, run into a thicket, or even over a place
where many dried leaves lie on the ground, it suddenly stops, squats, and
remains close until the danger is over, or until it is forced by a dog or the
sportsman himself to rise against its wish.
The shooting of Grouse of this species is precarious, and at times very
difficult, on account of the nature of the places which they usually prefer.
Should, for instance, a covey of these birds be raised from amongst Laurels
(Kalmia latifolia) or the largest species of Bay (Rhododendron maximum), these
shrubs so intercept the view of them, that, unless the sportsman proves quite an
adept in the difficult art of pulling the trigger of his gun at the proper
moment, and quickly, his first chance is lost, and the next is very uncertain.
I say still more uncertain, because at this putting up of the birds, they
generally rise higher over the bushes, flying in a straight course, whereas at
the second start, they often fly among the laurels, and rise above them in a
circuitous manner, when to follow them along the barrel of the gun is
considerably more difficult. Sometimes, when these birds are found on the sides
of a steep hill, the moment they start, they dive towards the foot of the
declivity, take a turn, and fly off in a direction so different from the one
expected, that unless the sportsman is aware of the trick, he may not see them
again that day. The young birds often prove equally difficult to be obtained,
for as they are raised from amongst the closely tangled laurels, they only fly a
few yards, and again drop among them. A smart cur-dog generally proves the best
kind on these occasions; for no sooner does he start a covey of Ruffed Grouse
than his barking alarms the birds as much as the report of a gun, and causes
them to rise and alight on the nearest trees, on which they may be shot at with
This leads me to remark, that the prevailing notion which exists in almost
every district where these birds are numerous, that on firing at the lowest bird
perched on a tree, the next above will not fly, and that by continuing to shoot
at the lowest in succession, the whole may be killed, is contradicted by my
experience; for on every attempt which I have made to shoot several in this
manner on the same tree, my efforts have proved unsuccessful, unless indeed
during a fall of snow, when I have killed three and sometimes four. The same
cause produces the same effect on different birds. It may happen, however, that
in districts covered with deep snow for several weeks, during severe winters,
these birds, becoming emaciated and weak, may stand a repetition of shots from a
person determined to shoot Grouse even when they are good for nothing; but, kind
reader, this barbarous taste is, I hope, no more yours than it is mine.
During spring, and towards the latter part of autumn, at which time the
Ruffed Grouse is heard drumming from different parts of the woods to which it
resorts, I have shot many a fine cock by imitating the sound of its own wings
striking against the body, which I did by beating a large inflated bullock's
bladder with a stick, keeping up as much as possible the same time as that in
which the bird beats. At the sound produced by the bladder and the stick, the
male Grouse, inflamed with jealousy, has flown directly towards me, when, being
prepared, I have easily shot it. An equally successful stratagem is employed to
decoy the males of our little Partridge by imitating the call-note of the female
during spring and summer; but in no instance, after repeated trials, have I been
able to entice the Pinnated Grouse to come towards me, whilst imitating the
booming sounds of that bird.
Early in spring, these birds are frequently seen feeding on the tender buds
of different trees, and at that season are more easily approached than at any
other. Unfortunately, however, they have not by this time recovered their flesh
sufficiently to render them worthy of the attention of a true sportsman,
although their flavour has already improved. When our mountains are covered
with a profusion of huckleberries and whortleberries, about the beginning of
September, then is the time for shooting this species, and enjoying the
delicious food which it affords.
The Ruffed Grouse, on alighting upon a tree, after being raised from the
ground, perches amongst the thickest parts of the foliage, and, assuming at once
an erect attitude, stands perfectly still, and remains silent until all
appearance of danger has vanished. If discovered when thus perched, it is very
easily shot. On rising from the ground, the bird utters a cackling note
repeated six or seven times, and before taking wing emits a lisping sort of
whistle, which seems as if produced by the young of another bird, and is very
When the ground is covered with snow sufficiently soft to allow this bird
to conceal itself under it, it dives headlong into it with such force as to form
a hole several yards in length, re-appears at that distance, and continues to
elude the pursuit of the sportsman by flight. They are sometimes caught while
beneath the snow. Many of them are taken alive in trap boxes during winter,
although the more common method of catching or rather destroying them is by
setting dead falls with a figure-of-four trigger.
Early in April, the Ruffed Grouse begins to drum immediately after dawn,
and again towards the close of day. As the season advances, the drumming is
repeated more frequently at all hours of the day; and where these birds are
abundant, this curious sound is heard from all parts of the woods in which they
reside. The drumming is performed in the following manner. The male bird,
standing erect on a prostrate decayed trunk, raises the feathers of its body, in
the manner of a Turkey-cock, draws its head towards its tail, erecting the
feathers of the latter at the same time, and raising its ruff around the neck,
suffers its wings to droop, and struts about on the log. A few moments elapse,
when the bird draws the whole of its feathers close to its body, and stretching
itself out, beats its sides with its wings, in the manner of the domestic Cock,
but more loudly, and with such rapidity of motion, after a few of the first
strokes, as to cause a tremor in the air not unlike the rumbling of distant
thunder. This, kind reader, is the "drumming" of the Pheasant. In perfectly
calm weather, it may be heard at the distance of two hundred yards, but might be
supposed to proceed from a much greater distance. The female, which never
drums, flies directly to the place where the male is thus engaged, and, on
approaching him, opens her wings before him, balances her body to the right and
left, and then receives his caresses.
The same trunk is resorted to by the same birds during the season, unless
they are frequently disturbed. These trunks are easily known by the quantity of
excrements and feathers about them. The males have the liberty of promiscuous
concubinage, although not to such an extent as those of the Pinnated Grouse.
They have frequent and severe battles at this season, which, although witnessed
by the females, are never interrupted by them. The drumming sounds of these
birds lead to their destruction, every young sportsman taking the unfair
advantage of approaching them at this season, and shooting them in the act.
About the beginning of May, the female retires to some thicket in a close
part of the woods, where she forms a nest. This is placed by the side of a
prostrate tree, or at the foot of a low bush, on the ground, in a spot where a
heap of dried leaves has been formed by the wind. The nest is composed of dried
leaves and herbaceous plants. The female lays from five to twelve eggs, which
are of a uniform dull yellowish colour, and are proportionate in size to the
bird. The latter never covers them on leaving the nest, and in consequence, the
Raven and the Crow, always on the look out for such dainties, frequently
discover and eat them. When the female is present, however, she generally
defends them with great obstinacy, striking the intruder with her wings and
feet, in the manner of the Common Hen.
The young run about and follow the mother, the moment after they leave the
egg. They are able to fly for a few yards at a time, when only six or seven
days old, and still very small. The mother leads them in search of food, covers
them at night with her wings, and evinces the greatest care and affection
towards them on the least appearance of danger, trying by every art in her power
to draw the attention of her enemies to herself, feigning lameness, tumbling and
rolling about as if severely wounded, and by this means generally succeeding in
saving them. The little ones squat at the least chuck of alarm from the mother,
and lie so close as to suffer one to catch them in the hand, should he chance to
discover them, which, however, it is very difficult to do. The males are then
beginning to associate in small parties, and continue separated from the females
until the approach of winter, when males, females, and young mingle together.
During summer, these birds are fond of dusting themselves, and resort to the
roads for that purpose, as well as to pick up gravel. I have observed this
species copulating towards autumn, but have not been able to account for this
unseasonable procedure, as only one brood is raised in the season.
These birds have various enemies besides man. Different species of Hawks
destroy them, particularly the Red-tailed Hawk and the Cooper's Hawk. The
former watches their motions from the tops of trees, and falls upon them with
the swiftness of thought, whilst the latter seizes upon them as he glides
rapidly through the woods. Pole-cats, weasels, racoons, opossums, and foxes,
are all destructive foes to them. Of these, some are content with sucking their
eggs, while others feed on their flesh.
I have found these birds most numerous in the States of Pennsylvania and
New York. They are brought to the markets in great numbers, during the winter
months, and sell at from 75 cents to a dollar apiece, in the eastern cities. At
Pittsburg I have bought them, some years ago, for 12 1/2 cents the pair. It is
said that when they have fed for several weeks on the leaves of the Kalmia
latifolia, it is dangerous to eat their flesh, and I believe laws have been
passed to prevent their being sold at that season. I have, however, eaten them
at all seasons, and although I have found their crops distended with the leaves
of the Kalmia, have never felt the least inconvenience after eating them, nor
even perceived any difference of taste in their flesh. I suspect it is only
when the birds have been kept a long time undrawn and unplucked, that the flesh
becomes impregnated with the juice of these leaves.
The food of this species consists of seeds and berries of all kinds,
according to the season. It also feeds on the leaves of several species of
evergreens, Although these are only resorted to when other food has become
scarce. They are particularly fond of fox-grapes and winter-grapes, as well as
strawberries and dewberries. To procure the latter, they issue from the groves
of the Kentucky Barrens, and often stray to the distance of a mile. They roost
on trees, amongst the thickest parts of the foliage, sitting at some distance
from each other, and may easily be smoked to death, by using the necessary
I cannot conclude this article, kind reader, without observing how
desirable the acquisition of this species might be to the sportsmen of Europe,
and especially to those of England, where I am surprised it has not yet been
introduced. The size of these birds, the beauty of their plumage, the
excellence of their flesh, and their peculiar mode of flying, would render them
valuable, and add greatly to the interest of the already diversified sports of
that country. In England and Scotland there are thousands of situations that
are by nature perfectly suited to their habits, and I have not a doubt that a
few years of attention would be sufficient to render them quite as common as the
It is now ascertained that this species extends over the whole breadth of
the Continent, it being found from our Atlantic districts to those bordering the
Pacific Ocean, Mr. TOWNSEND having observed it on the Missouri and along the
Columbia river, and Mr. DRUMMOND having procured specimens in the valleys of the
Columbia river. According to Dr. RICHARDSON, it reaches northward as far as the
56th parallel, and spends the winter on the banks of the Saskatchewan, where it
is plentiful. It also exists in the Texas. It is more abundant in our western,
middle, and eastern districts than in our southern states. In the maritime
portions of South Carolina it does not exist. In Massachusetts, Maine, New
Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, it is very plentiful; but I saw none in Labrador,
although I was assured that it occurs there, and did not hear of it in
RUFFED GROUSE, Tetrao umbellus, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. vi. p. 46.
TETRAO UMBELLUS, Bonap. Syn., p. 126.
TETRAO UMBELLUS, Ruffed Grouse, Swains. & Rich. F. Bor. Amer.,
vol. ii. p. 342.
RUFFED GROUSE, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 657.
RUFFED GROUSE, Tetrao umbellus, Aud. Orn. Biog.,
vol. i. p. 211;vol. v. p. 560.
Male, 18, 24.
Common from Maryland to Labrador, and in the interior from the mountainous
districts to Canada and the Saskatchewan. Columbia river. Resident.
Bill short, robust, slightly arched, rather obtuse, the base covered by
feathers; upper mandible with the dorsal outline straight in the feathered part,
convex towards the end, the edges overlapping, the tip declinate; under mandible
somewhat bulging toward the tip, the sides convex. Nostrils concealed among the
feathers. Head and neck small. Body bulky. Feet of ordinary length; tarsus
feathered, excepting at the lower part anteriorly, where it is scutellate,
spurless; toes scutellate above, pectinated on the sides; claws arched,
Plumage compact, glossy. Feathers of the head narrow and elongated into a
curved tuft. A large space on the neck destitute of feathers, but covered over
by an erectile ruff of elongated feathers, of which the upper are silky,
shining, and curved forwards at the end, which is very broad and rounded. Wings
short, broad, much rounded and curved, the third and fourth quills longest.
Tail long, ample, rounded, of eighteen feathers.
Bill horn-colour, brownish-black towards the tip. Iris hazel. Feet
yellowish-grey. Upper part of the head and hind part of the neck bright
yellowish-red. Back rich chestnut, marked with oblong white spots, margined
with black. Upper wing-coverts similar to the back. Quills brownish-dusky,
their outer webs pale reddish, spotted with dusky. Upper tail-coverts banded
with black. Tail reddish-yellow, barred and minutely mottled with black, and
terminated by a broad band of the latter colour, between two narrow bands of
bluish-white, of which one is terminal. A yellowish-white band from the upper
mandible to the eye, beyond which it is prolonged. Throat and lower part of the
neck light brownish-yellow. Lower ruff feathers of the same colour, barred with
reddish-brown, the upper black, with blue reflections. A tuft of light chestnut
feathers under the wings. The rest of the under parts yellowish-white, with
broad transverse spots of brownish-red; the abdomen yellowish-red; and the under
tail-coverts mottled with brown.
Length 18 inches, extent of wings 2 feet; bill along the ridge 3/4, along
the gap 1 1/2; tarsus 1 7/12, middle toe 1 3/4.
The plumage of the female is less developed and inferior in beauty. The
feathers of the head and ruff are less elongated, the latter of a duller black.
The tints of the plumage generally are lighter than in the male.
A remarkable difference of plumage is observed in specimens from the
opposite parts of the continent, those from the eastern districts being
invariably much greyer, especially on the tail-feathers, than those procured
along the Ohio, or in Virginia. These constant differences have tempted some
persons to suppose that we have two nearly allied species, instead of one; but
after the closest examination of all their parts, as well as of their habits, I
never could find any thing tending to support this supposition. In some
instances, the eggs of what I conceive a young female, have proved much smaller
than others, and Dr. T. M. BREWER has procured in Massachusetts a laying of them
minutely spotted with dull reddish-brown, on a ground of a light salmon colour.
The eggs usually measure an inch and a half in length, by an inch and
two-twelfths in breadth, and are of a uniform dull yellowish tint.
In this species the palate is flat, with two longitudinal ridges converging
anteriorly; the space between these ridges and the slit covered with small
papillae. The tongue is triangular, flattened, sagittate and papillate at the
base, 9 twelfths long, fleshy and pointed. The width of the mouth is 8
twelfths. The liver is extremely small, its lobes equal, and 1 inch in length.
The heart is also small, 11 twelfths long, 7 twelfths in breadth. The
oesophagus, Fig. 1 [a b f],
is 7 1/4 inches in length; for three inches, [a b], it has
a width of only 5 twelfths; it then enlarges to form a vast crop, [b c d], 3 1/2
inches in breadth, and 2 1/2 inches in length, that part of it connected with
which is 1 inch 5 twelfths in length; it then contracts to 1/2 inch, [e]; the
proventriculus, [e f], 7 1/2 twelfths in breadth. The stomach, [c d], is a very
powerful muscular gizzard, 1 inch 8 twelfths long, 1 inch 9 twelfths broad; the
inferior muscle very large, 1 twelfth thick; the lateral muscles extremely
developed, the left 6 twelfths, the right 5 twelfths in thickness; the
epithelium thick, tough, yellowish-brown, with two concave surfaces, which are
deeply grooved longitudinally. The proventricular glands are large, 3 twelfths
long, occupying a space of only 7 twelfths of an inch in breadth. The duodenum,
[h i], curves at the distance of 4 inches. The intestine, [h i j k], is 4 feet
1 inch long; the coeca come off at the distance of 6 1/4 inches from the
extremity; one of them 17 1/2, the other 16 1/2 inches long; their width for
three inches 4 twelfths, in the rest of their extent 6 twelfths; they are
narrowed toward the end, and terminate in a blunt nipple-like point; their inner
surface has 7 longitudinal ridges, and they are filled with a pultaceous mass.
The width of the duodenum is 5 1/2 twelfths; that of the greater part of the
rest of the intestine 6 twelfths; the cloaca, [k], is not enlarged.
The trachea is 6 inches long, rather slender, its breadth at the top 3
twelfths, at the lower part 2 1/2 twelfths. The rings are feeble and
unossified, 100 in number. There are no inferior laryngeal muscles. The
bronchi are very short, rather wide, of about 12 half rings. The lateral
muscles are rather large, the sterno-tracheal slips moderate.