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Game Bird Profile: Ruffed Grouse

Referred to by many as the king of upland game birds, here's why bird hunters love the keystone of the Northwoods.

Game Bird Profile: Ruffed Grouse

A covted prize by many upland bird hunters, the ruffed grouse is an iconic game bird across North America. (Photo By: Agnieszka Bacal /

A wide variety of grouse species are found and hunted throughout North America, from the east to the west coast of the United States, and from the southern U.S. all the way up to Canada and Alaska. Just as numerous as the species are the habitats these grouse thrive in, from the open prairies of the western United States to the thickly wooded forests of the far northeastern part of the country—and just about every habitat type in between.

Of the family Phasianidae, these grouse species are all somewhat similar, yet also quite different. Sure, they’re all grouse. But habitat type, food preferences, and effective hunting tactics can vary greatly from species to species.

The ruffed grouse, Bonasa umbellus, thrills gun dog owners and upland game hunters on a widespread scale. And there’s a good reason why it is known as the “king.”

“I think they call the ruffed grouse the king of the game birds for a couple of reasons,” says Dennis Stachewicz, longtime ruffed grouse hunter and owner of Aspen Thicket Grouse Dogs in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “They are basically the same thing as a combination of a lot of other birds. They’ll run like a pheasant; they live in unforgiving country much like a chukar. They’re just the ultimate combination because when you’re walking through that cover, it’s not easy. And they are hard as hell to shoot at through the trees.”

ruffed grouse male in display
The ruffed grouse gets its name from the long, dark colored neck feathers most prominent on males when in full display. (Photo By: Larry Dallaire/

Ruffed Grouse Range

While many think of the vast expanses of regenerating aspen thickets of northern Michigan or Maine when they think of ruffed grouse, this popular game bird can be found from coast to coast across North America. In Canada, the ruffed grouse range runs from the west coast clear across the midsection of the country to Canada’s east coast. On the west coast of the U.S., ruffed grouse can be found from northwest California up through Oregon and Washington, and into many areas of Alaska. The bird also inhabits parts of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah, then has very good populations across the Great Lakes region in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Ruffies inhabit many northern New England states like Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, as well as New York and Pennsylvania. Many states along the eastern U.S. coast also have good populations of ruffed grouse, and the birds can also be found in many southern states including Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia, and as far west as parts of Missouri.

ruffed grouse poop on drumming log
Scat piles are a key indicator for a drumming log, where males display for females or to defend their territory against other males. (Photo By: Agnieszka Bacal/

Ruffed Grouse Biology & Habitat

Ruffed grouse are fairly small grayish to reddish-brown grouse with a long, fan-shaped tail—a true prize for many who hunt the bird. Their tail has a wide black band toward the tip of the feathers, and the birds have a triangular crest. About the size of a common crow, ruffed grouse range in length from 15.8 to 19.7 inches, typically weigh about one to two pounds and have a wingspan of 20 to 24 inches.

The birds are commonly found in coniferous or mixed deciduous forests, often around clearings that create lots of prime edge habitat. They eat nearly everything, from buds, fruits, ferns, seeds, shrubs, and trees, to acorns, berries, and bugs. Chicks, of course, rely on protein from insects for their first two to four weeks of their lives.

ruffed grouse in the woods
Ruffed grouse prefer young, regenerating forests or edge habitats where different forest age classes or forest types meet. (Photo By: Steve Oehlenschlager/

Female grouse nest in spring and lay anywhere from nine eggs to a couple dozen. Incubation period is 23 to 24 days, and young are precocial, able to walk and care for themselves soon after hatching.

As far as conservation is concerned, the Ruffed Grouse Society and its members across the United States work to improve habitat for the betterment of the species. The organization has ongoing habitat projects in the works in several regions, including the eastern and western Great Lakes, mid-Atlantic, northeast and the southern Appalachian Mountains, with projects coming soon to western states.

ruffed grouse feeding on berries in a tree
Ruffed grouse are non-migratory and are able to survive the tough northern winters by foraging on berries and tree buds. (Photo By: Larry Dallaire/

Hunting the Ruffed Grouse

Hunting seasons for ruffed grouse are, of course, state specific and vary widely. Typically, however, ruffed and other grouse are among the first seasons to open each year. In many eastern states, the grouse seasons open in the middle of September. The same holds true out west, with Washington’s season typically opening Sept. 15. Some states have different seasons for different habitat zones, so always check the regulations in the area you intend to hunt before heading afield.

ruffed grouse color phases
Red and gray phase colorations are commonly seen in ruffed grouse with red more commonly observed in their southern reaches and gray most noted in northern latitudes. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

Hunting grouse behind pointing dogs is among the favorite methods for harvesting this species. In the thick grouse woods, a close-working pointing dog typically works better than a long-running dog more suited for chasing quail on the open prairies. Beeper collars, bells and GPS collars are often used for keeping track of dogs in dense ruffed grouse country, as some areas can be so thick you can’t see your dog if it is 20 yards away. Wider running pointing dogs are sometimes used down south in the more open meadows around woodlots and further west in the bird’s range.

Because of ruffed grouse’s inclination to hang out in thick areas, some hunters find flushing dogs to be their preference for hunting this majestic game bird. Flushers ranging from a variety of spaniel breeds to Labrador retrievers are all quite effective for putting up birds within shotgun range, helping their owners to fill up their game bag.

ruffed grouse and hunter and dog
A ruffed grouse in the hand is a trophy no matter where and how you hunt them. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

For guns and loads, since ruffed grouse aren’t that hard to knock down—only hard to hit—many hunters prefer sub-gauge shotguns like 16-, 20-, or even 28-gauge. Light loads with No. 7 to 8 shot will typically get the job done adequately. Any shotgun will do, so choose one that is comfortable to carry and one you find yourself proficiently shooting.

Hunters often begin grouse season with fairly open chokes and swap out for tighter chokes once the leaves fall and flushes begin to gain a little more distance. Grab a pair of sturdy boots and your favorite game vest and you’ll have all the proper gear to go grouse hunting.

The ruffed grouse stands to remain one of the most popular and undeniably challenging game birds to hunt. Their widespread distribution, long season, and propensity for showcasing exciting dog work make them a target for many upland bird hunters throughout North America.

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