Northland Nature: Experience the fall drumming of the ruffed grouseBudgeteer columnist Larry Weber will sign his latest book, “Webwood: Seasons of Life in the North Woods,” from 11 a.m. to noon Saturday, Oct. 9, at Northern Lights Books & Gifts in Canal Park.
Perhaps the most diverse and abundant birds during these early days of October are the sparrows. This is an interesting time, where the local residents mix with migrants and maybe even some early winter visitors. We may see 10 kinds in a single day and, since they readily feed in our yards, they will frequently come to us. The sparrows do not appear as they did in spring, as they wear more drab attire and refrain from singing. Other autumn birds are also now less colorful than earlier in the season. Most warblers appear similar, as do the flocks of thrushes and robin here now. Out on the lake, ducks pausing on their southbound flights are not of the same plumage that we saw back in April and May. Though some birds will look much as they did in spring, nearly all avoid the songs so associated with a vernal day.
These drab feathers and silent vocals are to be expected in autumn. The male birds are usually colorful, as to attract the attention of the females for breeding purposes. In a like manner, vocalizations are done to bring about mating. To be successful, the birds need to have a species-specific song, and many combine a unique blend of sounds to accomplish this. Once pairs have bonded, the continued songs and other sounds are announcements of ownership of their home territory. By this time of year, the mating season is long past and the young are gone, so territory proclamations are not needed.
That’s why it seems like such a surprise when I regularly hear a sound in the October woods that is more associated with April and May: the drumming of the ruffed grouse (pictured). It is so common to hear this sound that I expect to note it during my walks in this pleasant autumn month.
Once, while camping in the BWCA in late September, I heard a determined male drumming not far from my campsite. This was not unusual, but his persistence impressed me; he continued his loud wing beats through most of the night.
In order to find out what is going on, we need to look back at their life cycle. As the days get warmer and longer in spring, a male ruffed grouse will find a horizontal log where it can settle and quickly flap its wings against his chest to create the sound that we call “drumming.”
Usually I hear the first one in April, but, with the quick start this spring, one was heard already in mid-March. Without vocalizations, which are so common in other birds, grouse need to make use of another way of getting attention.
With the success of mating, the male continues to proclaim territory ownership through the next several weeks, usually slowing in early summer. Hens hatch the chicks and the family units feed and move through the woods. Many times I have scared up a mother with her clutch in the summer woods.
Though they scatter, they regroup and continue. By late summer, the young are nearly the size of their parents. A group of this many grouse needs more space and food and so the birds will disperse, often flying long distances. It is almost inevitable that such a movement will bring the young of the year into a claimed territory of an older male.
He does not want to move out and so he goes back to the method of territory proclamations from early in the year: He drums.
Drumming is heard through much of October but wanes as our weather gets colder. The latest date that I heard it in fall was Nov. 15. But now, as we start this new month, we can expect to see plenty of birds and hear some grouse too.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books that are available now, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.