Grouse can dance and drum with the best of them

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Grouse belong to a very large order of birds, Galliformes. Wild turkeys, bobwhite quail, and the non-native ring-necked pheasant and gray or Hungarian partridge are also members of this order.

Grouse chicks, which include all of Minnesota's native grouse — spruce grouse, ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, and prairie chicken — are down-covered and capable of moving about on their own soon after hatching.

All baby gallinaceous birds throughout the world are unique from other "precocial" youngsters of other species of birds such as ducks and geese. Indeed, most newly hatched gallinaceous birds develop functional wing feathers within their first week or two of life, yet are only about a third grown (compare that to ducks and geese that are without flight feathers until adult size and fully feathered).

Having flight feathers at such an early age is important for ground dwelling-birds like grouse in order to escape predators. For example, if any of you have ever come upon a brood of ruffed grouse chicks in the forest, you have undoubtedly witnessed the small chicks flutter five to 10 feet off the ground into thickets. This escape strategy, though not yet fully capable of powerful flight, is critical for their survival.

So let's talk about Minnesota's grouse population. From the pines to the prairie, our state has four species in all.

Spruce grouse are birds of primarily spruce and mixed coniferous forests across the northernmost regions of Minnesota. A docile bird often tolerating close encounters with humans, the bird has thus acquired the not-so-endearing nicknames "fool's hen" or "fool's grouse."

A striking, darkish bird with white bands across its breast and colorful heads, the male of the species struts turkey-like by fanning its tail feathers. Loud "claps" are produced when their wings beat against the air during courtship and territorial displays.

Ruffed grouse are the most widespread and abundant of Minnesota's grouse. Like the spruce grouse, "ruffies" are birds of the woods. But unlike spruce grouse, ruffed grouse prefer mixed deciduous forests. Aspen is the most important cover type for ruffs; young, sapling size aspen provide suitable brooding habitat, while nearby mixed, mid to older aged forests provide nesting and feeding sites. Alder and hazel also make excellent sites for food and cover. The name "ruffed" comes from the long and dark feathers of the neck. A displaying male extends these feathers to produce the showy "ruff."

Sometimes called the "drummer of the woods" male ruffed grouse display in similar fashion as spruce grouse, but with a notable difference.

Choosing usually a log or stump to stand upon, a male will use its tail to prop and support himself as he begins a series of wing beats against the air. The muffled thumps, starting slow and culminating in a loud and rapid series of wing beats, sounds like an old tractor. This "drumming" is most often performed in the springtime during territory establishment, though sometimes is performed in the fall as well.

Sharp-tailed grouse are birds of open grasslands and brushlands. Suitable habitat exists primarily in northwestern, east central, and northeastern Minnesota. At one time "sharpies" were the most popular and plentiful upland game bird in the state. However, since the advent of modern agriculture, fire suppression, and encroachment of trees onto preferred habitat, sharp-tailed grouse numbers are greatly reduced.

But populations do exist, with some areas in the state showing increases in numbers of birds. Furthermore, efforts to improve habitat is underway by resource agencies, conservation organizations, and private citizens.

Each spring, sharpies gather in large groups on dancing grounds or "leks" where males perform courtship dances to attract mates. With pointed tails erect, wings extended laterally, stamping feet, and assorted clucks and coos, male sharpies look and act like wind-up toys. As many as two dozen or more males and females will gather on traditional leks if the grounds are undisturbed from the year before.

Another prairie grouse found in Minnesota is the greater prairie chicken. Pioneers had observed countless numbers of both prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse on the expansive grasslands long ago. Like sharp-tails, prairie chickens gather in large groups on their traditional "booming grounds." Located in prairie habitats in Minnesota's northwest, prairie chickens depend on open grasslands for survival.

Booming grounds, which are places where male prairie chickens congregate to perform courtship displays, are also where you'll hear their amazing booming sounds created from inflating the bright yellow-orange air sacs on the sides of their necks. The hoots and moans sound eerie and, like sharp-tailed grouse, the performances are generally conducted at dawn to attract hens. Males erect special neck feathers, called pinnae, during their foot-stamping musical courtship displays, too.

Minnesota's four species of grouse belong to an interesting group of gallinaceous birds. All four are unique and all four require specific habitat types. From the pines to the prairies, lucky we are to have these four grouse call Minnesota home as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.