Ruffed Grouse

Figure 1

Ruffed Grouse, Bonasa umbellus umbelloides (Douglas, 1829)

Lewis's "the small brown pheasant"

ruffed grouse

© 2000 W. Steve Sherman, Lone Wolf Photography

At Fort Clatsop on February 5, 1806, Reubin Field returned from a hunt with "a phesant which differed but little from those common to the Atlantic states; it's brown is reather brighter and more of a redish tint. it has eighteen feathers in the tale of about six inches in length. this bird is also booted1 as low as the toes. the two tufts of long black feathers on each side of the neck most conspicuous in the male of those of the Atlantic states is also observable in every particular with this." On the third of March Lewis added more details about the bird:

The small brown pheasant is an inhabitant of the same country and is of the size and shape of the specled pheasant which it also resembles in it's economy and habits.    the stripe above the eye in this species is scarcely perceptrable, and is when closely examined of a yellow or orrange colour instead of the vermillion of the others.    it's colour is an uniform mixture of dark and yellowish brown with a slight mixture of brownish white on the breast belley and the feathers underneath the tail.    the whole compound is not unlike that of the common quail only darker.    this is also booted [feathered] to the toes.    the flesh of this is preferable to either of the others and that of the breast is as white as the pheasant of the Atlantic coast.


Wild Ox of India?

Figure 2

Male ruffed grouse in full display

ruffed grouse

© G. Bartley/VIREO

In 1825 the Irish zoologist Nicholas Aylward Vigor (1785-1840) classified the ruffed grouse in the family Tetraonidae (tet-rah-on-ih-dye); the term is a form of the Greek noun for grouse, tetraon. It has since been re-classified in the sub-family Tetraoninae of the family Phasianidae (pheasants). The name grouse is believed to have evolved from some form of the French word greoche, meaning "spotted bird."2 So far, so good.

Carl Linnæus had already classified the ruffed grouse under the genus Bonasa (bon-ay-sah) in 1766, for the reason that its so-called Drumming Display climaxed with a sound that was said—when or by whom is no longer clear—to resemble from a distance the bellow of the wild ox of India, which Aristotle (384-322 BC) had identified as the bonasus, or bonasum—although the comte de Buffon (1707-1788) claimed that the name was obscure even in Aristotle's day.3 Several 19th-century ornithologists tried to rename the genus, but Linnæus's choice prevailed on the basis of priority.

The sound of the male ruffed grouse's "drumming" is in fact produced by a rapid beating of wings that sounds to the susceptible imagination somewhat like drumming. However, the wings do not touch any object in the manner of drumsticks, but simply beat the air to and fro rapidly enough to set the air beneath them in motion, resulting in a low-frequency rumble—approximately 60 cps. The whole recital lasts less than 10 seconds overall.4

That electrifying sound of the forest's "mystic drum" was transliterated long ago as "Biff—biff—biff—biff—biff" at a rapidly increasing tempo, climaxing with a muffled "burr-urr-r-r-r-r." The exercise is repeated every few minutes for an indeterminate period of time.5 It is performed by males only—not necessarily in the full display mode—throughout the year but especially in spring, either to announce their presence to females and fellow males, or as a means of defining the drummer's territories. It is typically staged on some low elevation such as a fallen log, a low tree stump, or a boulder (as in Figures 1, 2).

A Jamesian gentleman's stylish ruff

Man with a fluffy collar surrounding high up his neck


Similarly, Linnæus—or one of his informants—imagined that the glossy black feathers on the sides of a male grouse's neck (discreetly hidden in repose, as on the grouse in Figure 1) which were erected during the courting display, resembled an umbrella, and so the Latin cognate umbellus (um-bell-us) seemed perfectly suitable as a specific epithet. Except for the difference in color, however, the grouse's showy collar more closely resembles the starched white, pleated ruffle neckpieces, called "ruffs," that framed the faces of well-dressed ladies and gentlemen during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. Indeed, it is from that rarely seen high collar of black feathers that the "king of upland game birds" gained its most appropriate, because most descriptive, common name.6


There are at least twelve—some authorities say fifteen—subspecies of Bonasa umbellus in North America that are distinguishable to experienced eyes, in details of coloration, including the prominence and color of barring on breasts and tail feathers. The specimen pictured in Figure 1 belongs to the subspecies umbelloides (um-bill-loy-deez), which was first identified by David Douglas (1799-1834) in 1829. Figure 2, which was taken in Manitoba, Canada, depicts the species B. u. incana (in-cay-nah; "hoary," in reference to the grayish breast), which is found in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, as well as southeastern Idaho into central Utah and western Colorado, and isolated areas of the Dakotas.

Altogether, the collective North American subspecies of Bonasum umbrellus occupy a huge region extending from northern Alaska and western British Columbia eastward to the Atlantic Coast of Canada, with fingers of habitat extending southward along the coast of Washington and Oregon; another finger straddling the Northern Rockies as far south as northern Utah; another branch descending into Minnesota and southern Wisconsin; and yet another reaching southwestward from Nova Scotia through New England along the Appalachians to the northern boundary of Alabama and Mississippi.7

Figure 3

The "pheasant of the Atlantic states"

eastern ruffed grouse

© 2002 Robert Royse

This is "the Partridge of the eastern states, and the Pheasant of Pennsylvania, and the southern districts," wrote Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) in American Ornithology.8 Wilson's vivid description of the species went beyond the mere enumerations of facts published most of his contemporaries, such as Thomas Say. With just a hint of amusement, Wilson included a hunter's perspective on the species:

The Pheasant generally springs within a few yards [of the hunter], with a loud whirring noise, and flies with great vigour through the woods, beyond reach of view, before it alights. With a good dog however, they are easily found; and at some times exhibit a singular degree of infatuation, by looking down, from the branches where they sit, on the dog below, who, the more noise he keeps up, seems the more to confuse and stupify them, so that they may be shot down, one by one, till the whole are killed, without attempting to fly off. In such cases, those on the lower limbs must be taken first, for should the upper ones be first killed, in their fall they alarm those below, who immediately fly off.

At top speed, ruffed grouse have been clocked at 40 m.p.h. as they disappear into dense brush.9


The ruffed grouse possesses a relatively primitive vocal apparatus. When alarmed, both males and females utter staccato quit-quit signals before taking flight. Females may sound a loud squeal or whine when surprised with her chicks, and may display a "crippled-bird" act to divert predators from them.

"Ruffed Grous or Pheasant"

Figure 4

scientific illustration of a large game bird

Courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Prior to Alexander Wilson's publication of his nine-volume American Ornithology (1808-1814), the only documentations of birds in the United States were some catalogs of selected names. Among them was Jefferson's list of 109 species that appeared in his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1787. Next came William Bartram's Travels Through North and South Carolina, of 1791, containing the names of 215 species. Shorter lists accompanied lesser works, including Benjamin Smith Barton's brief Fragments of the Natural History of Pennsylvania in 1799

Wilson's work, which established him by general acclaim as the "father of American ornithology," included 315 hand-colored drawings of birds, plus brief essays on 293 of them. For example, Wilson described the plight of the eastern ruffed grouse, which—locally at least—had already become what would today be classed as a "threatened species."

Formerly they were numerous in the immediate vicinity of Philadelphia; but as the woods were cleared, and population increased, they retreated to the interior. At present there are very few to be found within several miles of the city, and those only singly, in the most solitary and retired woody recesses.

Great numbers of these birds are brought to our markets, at all times during fall and winter, some of which are brought from a distance of more than a hundred miles, and have been probably dead a week or two, unpicked and undrawn, before they are purchased for the table. Regulations prohibiting them from being brought to market, unless picked and drawn, would very probably be a sufficient security from all danger. At these inclement seasons, however, they are generally lean and dry, and indeed at all times their flesh is far inferior to that of the Qual, or of the Pinnated Grous. They are usually sold in Philadelphia market at from three quarters of a dollar to a dollar and a quarter a pair, and sometimes higher.10

Four of the portraits were included at Lewis's personal request, being of specimens he had brought back from the West: Lewis's woodpecker, Clark's nutcracker, western tanager, and black-billed magpie. His drawing of the eastern "Ruffed Grous or Pheasant," engraved for printing by John G. Warnicke, appeared as Plate 49 in Volume Six.


1. A "booted" leg is a feathered leg.

2. John K. Terres, The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds (New York: Wings Books, 1980), 449. The modern French common name as listed in The American Ornithologists' Union is Gélinotte huppée, which means "crested grouse."

3. Barr's Buffon, 8:20-21; Google Books. The English printer James Smith Barr (fl. 1769-1806) translated and published the Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, by Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, 36 vols. (1749–1788).

4. The pitch is in the crack on the piano keyboard between B and B-flat two octaves below Middle C. Coincidentally, 60 cps is also the frequency of household alternating current, which is sometimes audible in the vicinity of a light bulb or an electric motor.

5. Ed. W. Sandys, "Rod and Gun," Outing, an Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation, 32:6 (September 1898), 39:1 (July 7, 1892), American Periodicals Series Online. See also—and hear— at

6. The author confesses that he hunted upland game birds in western Montana for many years, never once seeing a ruffed grouse in full display, and thus having no inkling of the reason for the bird's name.

7. "Index of Species Information" for Bonasa umbellus, at (accessed 18 November 2010).

8. Alexander Wilson, American Ornithology, or The Natural History of the Birds of the United States, 9 vols. (New York: Collins, 1828-29), 3:18. This was a reprint of Wilson's original American Ornithology . . . with a sketch of the author's life by George Ord (1806-09). Wilson's work was later reprinted in three volumes (1828-29) by his friend and biographer, George Ord (1781-1863). Ord (1781-1866) was a member of the American Philosophical Society, and president of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia from 1851 until 1858. Wilson died of acute dysentery in 1813, at the age of 47.

Wilson was also a poet, patriot, and a patriotic-song writer. He wrote the poem "Jefferson and Liberty" in 1804 for use as a campaign song. Sung to a Scottish tune known as "Willie was a wanton wag," it was an instant hit. In 1811 he made a pilgrimage to Lewis's grave on the Natchez Trace, where he interviewed Mrs. Grinder, the proprietor of the roadside inn where the star-crossed explorer spent his final hours. Wilson's report was intended only for the edification of a few of his friends, but it was soon published in the leading Philadelphia literary magazine, The Port Folio, and quickly became headline news nationwide. Subsequently, rumors of a murder conspiracy began to take root, with accusations recklessly cast about, and to the present day they persist in propagating themselves.

9. Terres, 451.

10. Clark Hunter, ed., The Life and Letters of Alexander Wilson (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1983), 3.

Originally funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee