Nine-Minute Naturalist: Beat the Drum

By David,

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Beat the Drum

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. I hope you enjoy!

Some animal’s presence in my life seems natural and familiar. Squirrels, rabbits, robins, and deer have been a constant in my environment as long as I can remember. A few creatures are so foreign and startling that their introduction into my environmental lexicon is memorable and exciting. After college I worked in the Adirondacks as a forester. There I was introduced to the ruffed grouse and I have loved every sighting since. While Virginia is home to this startling bird, the population has been in steep decline for decades. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will highlight why seeing and hearing this lovely creature is so memorable.



The ruffed grouse is a chunky medium sized bird colored to fit perfectly into the forest. The dappled, grayish/reddish secretive bird is a hard to find visually but makes itself known audibly. The spring time is the best time to find grouse with your ears. Male grouse have a unique drumming display to find a mate. They take their place atop a log, stump, or rock to begin their drumming display. They start by slowly beating their wings and build to a crescendo of wing beats lasting up to 10 seconds. Displays are most often heard around sunrise but can be in the evening on moonlit nights. Drumming may be the wrong word since the display does not involve drumming anything but air. As the bird quickly rotates its wings back and forth, air beneath the wings creates a vacuum that creates a deep thumping sound that cares up far into the woods. Here is a link to a video that shows the act of drumming:

Another way I became introduced to ruffed grouse is through sheer startlement. Nothing scares one out of blissful contemplation than the thunderous explosion of a grouse taking off at close proximity. They will remain motionless to avoid detection until a wayward soul walks a bit too close for comfort. The defense mechanism is sheer explosion followed by a short flight and back into hiding. In the winter in the Adirondacks, they would fly hundred yards or so and bury themselves deep into the snow.

When walking the forests of upstate New York, weekly sightings of grouse were standard. Through all my time at Wintergreen I have only been startled by an erupting grouse 10-15 times at most. The steeply declining population in Virginia is a story of unintended consequences. Ruffed grouse thrive in the young forest environment. The habitat provided by a forest 5 to 20 years old is ideal to meet their needs for reproduction, recruitment, and survival. As Virginia transitioned from the industrial forestry peak of the 1920-1950s, the mindset has shifted to old-growth, even aged forest. As forests have aged since the removal of dying or dead chestnut trees, habitat crucial to maintaining grouse has slowly dwindled. It turns out ruffed grouse need a diverse age class throughout their habitat. Mature forests provide prime nesting habitat while the new-growth forest provides essential areas for brooding.

This steep decline has caught many groups attention. The Department of Wildlife Resources conducts multiple surveys to get a grasp on the population levels. Spring drumming surveys are provided by staff and volunteers while turkey hunters and fall bowhunters are surveyed to see how many have flushed or heard grouse while in the forest. The American Grouse Society is active in promoting land management that provides the need habitat for this species. The race is on to stop the decline of the ruffed grouse.

Despite the low population levels at Wintergreen, it is possible to have a chance encounter with this elusive bird. Hemlock Springs Trail has a decent amount of grape that attracts grouse in summer. The telephone line road paralleling the trail is also a nice place to find them. The power line at the end of Grassy Ridge gravel road has been known to house ruffed grouse. Despite not knowing for sure, the gas pipeline clear cut near the gatehouse certainly provides all the habitat necessary.

Hearing the drumming of a ruffed grouse looking for a mate or jumping backwards at the explosion of a flushing bird are two experiences that are sure to make an impression of any naturalist. Be sure to keep alert this spring for the elusive ruffed grouse!

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