North Words: ‘Drummer of the woods’ is MN’s most popular upland game bird

I've been spending a fair amount of time hunting ruffed grouse this early fall. During the first couple of weeks of Minnesota's small game hunting season, I was in the woods ten of the first twelve days. Most of the time I had only the last hour ...

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time hunting ruffed grouse this early fall. During the first couple of weeks of Minnesota’s small game hunting season, I was in the woods ten of the first twelve days. Most of the time I had only the last hour of light, or the first hour of light; after work, before work, and during prime time hours during the weekends. The long and short of it? I always squeak in time whenever I can - just so I can be in the woods.

The ruffed grouse, sometimes referred affectionately as “drummer of the woods”, is Minnesota’s most popular upland forest game bird. The bird is challenging to hunt, and, when prepared for dining, is among the finest Northwoods dining fare.

Though commonly heard during the springtime woodland when male ruffed grouse “drum”, it isn’t uncommon to hear male birds drum in the autumn months as well. For those unfamiliar with the unique noise, the sound is perhaps more mechanical in characteristic than it is natural. “What,” many have probably thought upon hearing the drumbeat for the first time, “…kind of machine is making such a racket here in the forest?” The source of the strange “thump-thump-thump-wrrrrrr” noise is purely natural and very much alive.

I was eleven years old when I first heard the sound. Exploring our woods north of the barn during a sunny April afternoon, I remember stopping what I was doing to listen. The repetitive thumping was as curious a sound as I had ever heard.

Yet despite my initial curiosity, I quickly became piqued when I surmised it was most certainly our neighbor’s popping and chugging green John Deere tractors west of our farm. Alas, I would later learn, the “tractors” could be heard in other woodlands too, not just ours. And furthermore, as Dad instructed, they’re not tractors at all - they’re partridge.


The partridge that my Dad told me about is of course the ruffed grouse. Grandfather Klemek used to call the pudgy chicken of the woods “pat’ridge” and I did for a time myself. Gradually I came to call the bird by his rightful common name, ruffed grouse, but sometimes “ruffy”, “old ruff”, or just plain “grouse”.

A favorite author of mine, Burton Spiller, who wrote passionately about great dogs, good friends, and the scent of autumn woodlands while hunting grouse, called him “King” in obvious reference to the esteem he placed upon the magnificent game bird.

The actual drumming sound is produced by the male ruffed grouse. And while the drumming occurs throughout the year, even in the middle of winter sometimes, it is typically associated with early spring as the snow begins to melt. Thus, it is during this important time of year that male ruffed grouse set up shop and begin advertising in earnest their presence and their individual territories.

World renowned ruffed grouse researcher, the late Gordon Gullion, coined a male ruffed grouse’s territory as his “activity center”. Without question, a drumming grouse is at the very center of a frenzied activity. Drumming, however, is a somewhat misleading term, especially to a novice; for nothing is struck . . . nothing is beaten . . . nothing, except of course, thin air.

Essential for drumming to be produced, a male grouse must have a decent perch on which to perform. His tail is fanned and used as a prop to hold himself fast to a favorite drumming log or stump. He utilizes his tail in much the same manner as a beaver does with its broad and flat tail. Beavers stand upright to gnaw on trees they wish to fell and their tails keep them upright, balanced, and secure.

Leaned back on his tail, a male ruffed grouse begins to forcefully strike the air with his wings in snap-like fashion. The technique produces a vacuum and loud “thump” sounds are produced with each subsequent wing-snap. The duration between successive wing beats is quickened and, the entire episode, culminating in a rapid flurry flapping wings, lasts only about five to eight seconds.

The importance of his tail during the drumming sequence is realized if he can be imagined without one. A tailless grouse would more than likely be propelled violently backwards by the sheer force of his own beating wings if not for his tail mooring him so. The interval between drumming sequences is usually no more than four minutes, but sometimes as little as a minute.

The whole affair - drumming - and its intended purpose is solely to advertise to other male grouse that this particular spot is taken and that trespassers should heed well. Gullion’s research on the activity centers of dominant male ruffed grouse concluded that in good grouse cover, drumming males will be about 148 to 159 yards apart from one another with each bird occupying and defending around eight to ten acres of territorial space.


Female ruffed grouse are familiar with these activity centers too. Large and dominant male grouse usually occupy historical drumming sites that are used time and time again. Hens in estrus visit these perennial logs and, if a resident male is present, mating will occur.

Indeed, there’s a lot of drumming that goes on throughout the Northland. From morel pickers flocking to woodlands looking for emerging mushrooms in the springtime, to hunters pursuing Ol’Ruff in the fall, the drummer of the woods is a Minnesota avian delight as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at .)

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