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Blane Klemek column: Ruffed grouse are a challenge to hunt

Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek1 / 2
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I would argue that a more fitting bird for Minnesota's official state bird would have been the ruffed grouse.

Indeed, here's a bird that can be found throughout a large swath of Minnesota, not to mention being a year 'round resident. And as beautiful a bird as the common loon is, the loon is much less "common" in our state than Ol 'Ruff is.

Considered by many a hunter as the most challenging of upland game birds to hunt, Minnesotans can boast about living in the premier ruffed grouse hunting state.

Indeed, with abundant aspen, hazel, and alder and mixed deciduous-coniferous forests — components that make up ideal ruffed grouse habitat — the annual ruffed grouse harvest ranges anywhere between 250,000 to one million birds.

Whether hunting alone on an isolated wooded trail, or with a favorite hunting dog or with a group of family and friends, it's hard to beat time spent outdoors hunting ruffed grouse.

Ruffed grouse spend their entire life in a relatively small area (as little as 40 acres) providing that suitable habitat exists. Good grouse habitat must contain a component of multi-aged aspen or "popple" trees. Young aspen saplings provide the dense shelter that hens prefer for raising her broods, while male flower-buds from mature aspen trees provide essential winter food.

Aspen forests, along with other hardwoods, deciduous shrubs, and herbaceous plants often associated with aspen woodlands, provide additional food and shelter for ruffed grouse.

Such plants as clover, rose-hips, fern fronds, birch, ironwood, oak, hazel, June berry, dogwood, and other fruit and nut-bearing plants, provide food and cover for grouse throughout the year.

Despite the many survival challenges ruffed grouse face, grouse are well adapted to Minnesota's four seasons. Fringed toes serve as "snowshoes" for walking on snow and as grips in order to hold onto slippery aspen branches while feeding on buds. And when wintertime temperatures plummet, and the snow is deep enough, ruffed grouse spend the nights beneath the snow in snug little burrows.

A widespread bird inhabiting much of North America, ruffed grouse can be found in Alaska, throughout Canada, the Rockies, the Midwest, the Appalachians, and most of the eastern seaboard states. There are even pockets of suitable ruffie habitat in such states as North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and central Montana. Still, no other state produces more ruffed grouse than Minnesota.

I've so many splendid memories of observing and hunting this fine, adaptable, and interesting native woodland bird. From times afield in the seasons of spring watching and photographing drumming males, to the countless occasions I've walked and hunted within their special haunts.

Minnesota's small game hunting season just opened on Sept. 15. While hunters and their dogs have taken to the woods in search of ruffed grouse, bringing home a few isn't nearly as easy as some people might believe. Fleet of foot and wing, ruffed grouse have a knack of evading hunters and other predators with ease. Using cover to their advantage, ruffed grouse often flush when a hunter isn't anticipating a flush, much less seeing the bird beforehand.

Just these past several days I've retreated to the woods for a few hours of trail walking and "brush busting" in search of these extraordinary birds. I've flushed several grouse, which is a good thing, but in each instance I either didn't see the bird well enough in the thick cover as it flew, or I didn't see the bird at all.

Drumming, too, has been a common sound as I walked quietly in the autumn woodlands that I enjoy hunting. Strange as it would seem, because springtime is the drumming and breeding season, male ruffed grouse commonly drum in the fall as well.

Ruffed grouse are wild and native birds worthy of our admiration. From their peculiar and resourceful habits of diving into snow to escape the wind and cold of wintertime, to their thunderous flushes from thick cover when one least expects it, Ol' Ruff is here the year around to observe and listen to, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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