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Ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus), often called “wood’s pheasant,” are found in some of the large forested areas of south central Indiana. These fine game birds are about three times the size of quail, and when flushed from cover they resound with a volume equal to their size. In eating quality, the savory white meat is similar to quail. Ruffed grouse depend on young forests of seedling/sapling/pole size hardwoods that were historically created by either natural disturbances (e.g. tornadoes, fire storms, insect outbreaks) across a large continuous forested landscape or within transitional zones between grasslands and forests.
Grouse have a beautiful coloration that blends with fallen leaves and autumn colors. Two color phases, gray and red, are present in grouse. Differentiation is by tail color. The sexes are similar in color, but the tail of the male is longer than 5 7/8 inches length, while that of the female is shorter. The average weight of a male is 21 ounces which is slightly heavier than the female. During mating season, the males produce a sound that is referred to as drumming. It resembles the far away sound of a two-cycle engine that reverberates slowly and increases in tempo.
Grouse are native to Indiana and belong to a large family of birds containing 18 species, all of Northern Hemispheric distribution. The first settlers found grouse throughout the state, but as the years passed, eventual distribution of habitat caused a rapid decrease in the population. By 1929 the range had dwindled to its present size in the south central hill region. The population continue to decrease but picked up again in the late 1930s as abandoned farms reverted back to brush lands. In 1983, ruffed grouse occur in 41 counties, which is the largest distribution since 1856. Compared to the 1983 distribution, it is highly probable that ruffed grouse are now extirpated from 15 counties and the extirpation is likely to exceed 25 counties within a few years if no major forest disturbance occurs.
Ruffed grouse, unlike quail, do not pair off during the breeding season. Ruffed grouse are polygamous breeders; the male and female grouse meet only momentarily for breeding. After breeding, the hen moves on to begin nesting while the male continues to drum and breed with additional females. The nest is likely to be located in a pan shaped depression at the base of a tree or in a small clump of brush. An average of 11 antique white eggs are laid in April and hatch in 24 days. Setting hens have a near prefect camouflage and will sit tight until approached within a few feet. When flushed from her nest, she will usually return, but the eggs may chill if disturbance is prolonged or frequent. Human scent will also lead predators to the nest. Chicks leave soon after hatching and can fly at three weeks of age. At 12 weeks, they are fully grown and ready to go their own way.
Grouse eat a wide variety of foods from tree buds to insects. Seldom would there be a shortage of food for grouse. Green plant material is readily taken from April through September. The most common foods are wild grapes, legume seeds, greenbrier berries, Christmas fern fronds, cinquefoil leaves, dogwood berries, acorns, ironwood catkins, hazlenuts, green leaves and tree buds.
Grouse usually feed in early morning and then loaf in protected areas such as pine groves. They usually flush in singles or in pairs at 20 to 40 yards. A favorite method of hunting is to work along drainages or ridges and then brushy draws. Evergreens are favorite loafing spots but grouse can be just about anywhere except in open fields. Shot size 6 and 7 1/2 seem to be most effective. Greenbrier thickets are common in good grouse country and thick pants are required for protection. Dogs are not necessary for hunting but are effective in retrieving.
Hunting restrictions were first enacted in 1890 limiting the open season from October 15 to December 20, and in 1937 the season was completely closed. Studies of grouse were first initiated in 1951 to census the population and determine their range. Nesting and brood observations were started in 1952 followed by roadside drumming counts in 1953. Game farm birds were purchased and released in suitable but unpopulated areas in 1952 and 1954. These releases were not successful in building up a population. Starting in 1963, wild-trapped grouse from the existing grouse range were released in unoccupied areas in southern Indiana, and in 1965 the hunting season in 28 years was opened from November 10 to 24, in Monroe, Morgan, Brown, Jackson, Bartholomew and Lawrence counties.
Today grouse hunting occurs from October 1 to December 31 throughout South Central and South East Indiana.