Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Snow tracks: Ruffed Grouse

Stokes Field Guide
 to Bird Songs-
 a set of 4 CDs. $16 at Walmart!
As I sat at my kitchen table last night, I was listening to tracks of bird calls. I’m in an ornithology course here at SUNY Cobleskill, and we will be learning 150 birds by sight and sound. Listening to the calls of Northern Cardinals, American Goldfinches, Song Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Baltimore Orioles puts me in a good mood. It makes me think of longer, warmer days ahead. They are coming, right?

I will share with you today, an observation I made the other day. I was out volunteering with some Department of Environmental Conservation employees on Friday (3/1), which deserves another post which I WILL get to, but for now I wanted to share this brief experience.

I love tracking animals. I really got into it when I was a student at Finger Lakes Community College. One of the faculty members was very into learning about what the animals were doing via their tracks. And while you can track all year long, it’s easiest when there’s a nice blanket of snow on the ground!

On Friday we were traveling around to different sites all over Region 4. We spent the majority of our time in Delaware and Otsego Counties. For more information about the Wildlife Management Units in Region 4 check out: DEC Region 4 WMUs.

As we were out checking on various things here and there, snow was falling. A nice fluffy light snow. It made for a pretty time in the woods, and it was as well a great track medium. While we were making our way through the woods, I noticed a very interested track in the snow. It was something I had never seen before, but I instantly had a clue. Some scat was left behind. I find looking at scat extremely interesting. I know, it’s poop. But these little things left behind let us know who was there! Ruffed Grouse scat is pretty interesting looking, and in my opinion, is not easily mistaked for anything else in these neck o’ the woods.

If you read the title, you’ll know that I’m talking about the Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus)!

A Ruffed Grouse (and scat!) in
Yellowstone National Park, January 2012.
Photo credit: John Van Niel
The Ruffed Grouse is the King of the Woods. This is a hearty little upland game bird that is cryptically colored, and in my opinion, has quite a bit of character. He can be heard drumming on a log asserting his man-hood to the hens and other cocks. They’ve been described as being explosive: they will often sit still until the very last moment. You can literally almost walk upon them before they burst from hiding. On a forest floor of dead leaf litter, they are almost IMPOSSIBLE to see. I quite enjoy learning about these birds, and was happy to come upon very fresh tracks.

Ruffed Grouse tracks in the snow- March 2013

To describe these tracks, I’ll say “rodent-like” at first glance. I guess I mean the trail looked rodent-like to me, not the individual track. The individual track, or where the foot fell so to speak, was bird-like. I could count 4 toes which are anisodactylly arranged (3 toes in front, 1 in back). But this bird appeared to be shuffling! From a distance it looked like a but like a tunnel that had collapsed. Similar to what meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) make in the snow. Upon further investigation though, I found a scat.
Ruffed Grouse scat on left (Photo credit: Walnut Hill Tracking & Nature Center),
Ptarmigan (Lagopus sp.) scat on right taken in Hope, Alaska.
I had an experience in the summer of 2012 where I found Ptarmigan scat in Alaska (click here for my Ptarmigan stories). I was working up there for the summer, and on a day off I went on a birding field trip with the local bird club. I found that pile of scat shown above, and I immediately thought of Ruffed Grouse, but it did not live where I was in Alaska. I was also on the tundra, above tree line- not suitable Grouse habitat. I had an inkling to what it was, and I was right. Ptarmigan and Grouse are very similar birds. Small-medium upland game birds. They eat similar things like vegetation and small invertebrates. Of course there are regional differences to what they are eating specifically, but generally similar diets. Just to be sure though, I referred to my Bird Tracks & Sign book by Mark Elbroch and Eleanor Marks. The authors have included awesome illustrations and photographs of all types of sign left behind by North American birds. For the serious birders out there- check it out!

Ruffed Grouse scat found in snow- March 2013
Perhaps a small, inconsequential bird terd to most, but to this aspiring biologist, a very neat clue to an animal that had very recently been in the area! And we joked that it was probably watching us work and/or just waiting to scare the heck out of us on the way out of the woods. Thankfully, that did not happen.

Could the 'Ruffed Grouse Shuffle' be the new 'Harlem Shake'???

Ruffed Grouse winter adaptations on feet.
Photo credit: Mary Holland
One last bit of information about Grouse tracks. According to the Bird Tracks & Sign book, as well as a variety of websites I’m perusing, Ruffed Grouse are known to grown these “small, fringelike or comblike additions. … It is believe that these “fringes” aid in winter travel, acting like snowshoes and distributing the weight of the bird over a greater surface area” according to Elbroch and Marks. These fringes are not feathers, rather tissue and they are deciduous. Apparently they seem to wear away as the winter season closes and spring time opens. Unfortunately the snow was a bit too dry, and I did not see these little projections.

And so ends the story of the Ruffed Grouse tracks. I know it’s not one of my more exciting tales of the wild, but interesting enough to me to want to share. If you’re interested in wildlife, check out a local nature or interpretive center and see if they ever lead tracking workshops. It’s fascinating to start learning about what animals are doing when we aren’t looking. Consequently, that’s also why I love using camera traps!


  1. Great post. Grouse is one of my favorites birds. Haven't seen many here in CT over the past few years. Used to love hunting them. They won more times then I did!!! :)

    1. Hey PTO- thanks for stopping by. It's been awhile since I've seen you on Blogger!

  2. Nice job. The tracks always remind me of a zipper :)

    1. Agreed JVN- it's a really interesting looking track pattern for sure.

  3. Great post Alyssa! I've been working on song bird tracks lately, but not doing so well with it. I can identify quail and on up, but anything smaller than that looks all the same to me. Wish we had grouse and ptarmigan in my area!


    1. Thanks Bill. The only advice I can give you is to use not just the sounds, but there are phonetic cues (Eastern Towhee "Drink your teeeeeeeeeeeeea") as well as visual drawings for calls. I believe they were put out by the American Ornithologists Union. I'm surprised at how easy it has come (with hours/days) with listening.


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