Drumming for mates
(Editor’s Note: Stan Tekiela will be speaking at the Active Generations: A Positive Aging Expo on Saturday, May 21, at 10 a.m. The expo will be held at the Buffalo Civic Center, 1306 County Road 134, in Buffalo.)
I am fascinated by the diversity of mother nature. This was abundantly clear to me the other day while I sat in a tiny chair blind, in the dark, waiting for the sun to come up and for a ruffed grouse to enter the habitat that lay before me.
The grouse of the world are one of the more amazing groups of birds. Known as the Galliformes, they are heavy-bodied, ground-dwelling/feeding birds that look like chickens. They include turkeys, quail, and grouse. Worldwide, there are about 250 different species. Here in North America, we have 22 species, and they are known for some of the most amazing spring-time mating rituals.
All the grouse species have a spectacular mate selection system. Each species practices some kind of elaborate ritual where the male does some kind of dance or display to attract females. I recently went to Wyoming to film sage grouse, and how the males put on an elaborate display for the females in the sage-brush habitat. This is a perfect example of the amazing grouse mating system.
But, on this particular dark morning, I was stuffed into a small chair blind, and was waiting for another amazing grouse, the ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus). The ruffed grouse is a medium-sized grouse that lives in forested regions of the east, extending down the Appalachian Mountains, across the northern states, and across Canada up to Alaska. Its common name “ruffed” refers to a set of black feathers on the sides of the male’s neck, which resembles the starched frill of fabric worn around the neck by people, which was the height of fashion during the Elizabethan times.
This bird is often incorrectly called a partridge by some in the hunting community. There may be some superficial resemblance to partridge, but the grouse are not flock birds like partridges, they have a different mating system, are much larger, and the list goes on and on.
Each spring, a male ruffed grouse chooses a fallen log on the forest floor. There doesn’t seem to be any one type or size of log the birds choose. I’ve seen small logs, that are barely large enough to hold the bird, and other logs that are absolutely huge. Some logs are lying flat, while other logs are elevated off the ground. It’s not known what goes into the selection of a drumming log.
On his chosen log, the male ruffed grouse will “drum” to attract females. He is not actually drumming or hitting the log or beating his chest like Tarzan. The sound produced comes from the wing beats. Each wing beat moves enough air to create a thumping sound. Each drumming session lasts only 10 to 20 seconds and consists upwards of 50 wingbeats.
The sound produced by the flapping wings is a low-frequency sound that carries well across the forest floor. This is critical because a forest full of trees can really dampen higher-frequency sounds. Often, you can feel the sound more than hear the sound. It’s not uncommon for the male grouse to start drumming at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, and will continue all night and well into the morning hours. This can make it challenging to get into my blind and get ready to photograph when the male is on his log all night long.
Approaching my blind, I could hear him drumming a couple times. I had no choice but to get in my blind with the grouse on the log, which would no doubt scare him off. This is not a good option, but I had no choice. When I got close enough to see the blind and log, the grouse wasn’t on his log. What a lucky break for me. I quickly got inside the blind and set up all my camera gear and got ready.
In the early morning light, I could see the grouse walking through the woods and then stepped up on the log. He looked one direction, then another. He cocked his head from side to side, as if to focus on different parts of the woods. Eventually, he settled in and stood on the edge of the log. He struck a position that suggested he was going to drum, then I heard his first wing beat, then the second and the rest in rapid succession. I was able to capture some amazing images and video. What a spectacular species and incredible mating strategy. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the US to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on Instagram.com, Facebook.com and Twitter.com. He can be contacted vis his web page at naturesmart.com.