Frequent readers know that I like to go hunting occasionally. While not as ardent a hunter as I was in the heady days of my youth, I still enjoy a walk in the woods chasing game.
One type of hunting I always enjoyed was ruffed grouse hunting, or as it’s usually referred, “partridge huntin” Of all the hunting I enjoyed, ruffed grouse hunting remains my favorite. The season starts in October, so the weather is usually pleasant, the fall foliage at it’s best, and the game…well it’s exciting.
At one point in my life I had become fairly lethal when it came to ruffed grouse hunting, and filled my game bag on more than one day in the woods. Those were the days before I had fancy pump action shotguns and interchangable chokes. Instead I had my grandfathers old single shot twelve guage Harrington Richardson shotgun and low brass number six C.I.L. shotgun shells.
I often hunted alone, stalking, instead of flushing partridge in the woods beyond the camp, an area of overgrown pasture, untended apple trees, hardwood hills and mixed woods, perfect ruffed grouse habitat. If you have a dirt road that runs through that habitat, you have it made.
Grouse have a tendancy to wait until you are too close for comfort, or, see you look directly at them as they remain motionless. When that happens they take off, in what I can best describe as an explosion of wings, that sound like a fast helicopter, and as is well known by anyone who has ever tried their hand at wing shooting grouse, they have an innate ability to put a tree or trees between them and the hunter.
But, they usually don’t fly far, and after a few minutes to settle down, will often go back to their business, giving the patient hunter a second chance. Sometimes it is better to just sit down and wait a bit instead of crashing off into the woods in the direction they flew.
Ruffed grouse used to be fairly numerous around the camp, but as the place has built up their habitat has diminished somewhat. That, and something called a “grouse cycle” seems to be have their numbers a little lower around the camp. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that coyotes may also be playing a role in keeping the grouse population in check.
But ruffed grouse were not really what I was thinking about tonight. I was thinking about a similar bird that hasn’t crossed my path in many, many years, the Spruce Grouse or Spruce Partridge.
Similar in size to a ruffed grouse, and somewhat similar in appearance, that is where the similarities end. Spruce partridge are protected here in Nova Scotia. I was always told that was because they were not too bright and therefore easy pickings for someone lost in the woods.
I am not sure if that is why they are protected, or if it is because of low population, but it’s an accurate description of them. Instead of busting from cover and putting as many trees as possible between them and a hunter, spruce partridge often fly up to the nearest tree and sit on a low branch when startled. If they move at all.
As I mentioned, female spruce partridge can be mistaken for ruffed grouse, but their are some distinct differences. Spruce partridge have a dark tail with a pale band at the end, the opposite of ruffed grouse, nor do female spruce partridge erect their crown feathers when alarmed like ruffed grouse do.
Both of these birds can sometimes have similar color phases, between grey and brown, which adds to the difficulty in telling one from the other quickly.
Ruffed grouse like edges, for example, the edges of old farm fields bordered by woods, logging roads, and mixed forest, with an emphasis on stands of hardwood trees which provide a good deal of their sustenance.
Spruce partridge are more likely to be found in swampy areas, bordered by softwood trees, like spruce, which is a mainstay of their diet. They are not as likely to be found in the hardwood, but in the swamp. This is said to be what makes them a less than delicious tasting bird, especially compared to the ruffed grouse.
Because of their resemblance to ruffed grouse, particularly the females, it is important for hunters, particularly new hunters, to learn to be able to tell the difference between the two birds. The easiest way to do that is by observing what they do, and where you find them.
If you encounter a chicken sized bird that approaches you, or at least doesn’t run or fly away, it may very well be a spruce partridge. If it flies up to the nearest tree branch, it may very well be a spruce partridge. And, if you come across a partridge in swampy, low land, that is predominately softwood covered, such as where you might be hunting rabbits, it is likely a spruce partridge. If the partridge lands in a tree nearby and you can see it well, you may notice a little red patch close to it’s eye, if it is a male spruce partridge.
Although they sometimes hide in spruce trees, ruffed grouse are usually found closer to hardwood trees, along edges of mixed forest and they love old grown up apple orchards and although not always, they tend to “get out of Dodge” upon your approach.
I still love the sight of a ruffed grouse around the camp, a symbol of the woods and a reminder of days past.