- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
Permanent resident in the forests of Minnesota and a common species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
Wide distribution across the boreal forest from the Maritime provinces and the eastern United States to British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. Southern limits in the Northeast extend into the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia; in the Midwest to southern Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin; in the Rocky Mountains to central Utah; and along the Pacific coast to northern California. The species attains its highest densities in western British Columbia. (Figure 1).
A game species, the Ruffed Grouse was assigned a Continental Concern Score of 9/20 by Partners in Flight.
Primarily vegetarian, but diet varies by season. In the breeding season, consumes leaves of many herbaceous plants, fruits, and insects; the latter are important to chicks and adults. In other seasons, consumes buds, twigs, catkins, flowers, leafy greens, and acorns. Fond of aspen buds, catkins, and leaves but also uses hazel, willow, and birch.
On the ground in a depression with dead leaves, usually near the base of a tree, stump, log, or boulder.
The Ruffed Grouse is the quintessential upland game bird of Minnesota. Hatch in 1892 in his First Report of the State Zoologist exclaimed, “Nowhere was the Ruffed Grouse more abundant than in all the deciduous forests of this state.” He further said he had reliable reports that its distribution was “from the southern line of the state to the Lake of the Woods in the extreme north.”
Roberts (1932), in his treatise Birds of Minnesota, glorified the bird even more when he said, “Sportsmen will probably agree that the Ruffed Grouse, from every point of view, is the finest upland game-bird belonging to the state of Minnesota, if not the whole of North America.” He described the Ruffed Grouse as breeding in all woodlands of the state and noted that it was highly adaptable to agricultural and urbanized expansions in the early 1900s:
Even with the cutting of the forests and the occupancy of the land, it has maintained a foothold in all available places in the settled portions of the state. Nearly every considerable bit of woodland in the southern part of Minnesota, with anything like wild conditions, still has its breeding Grouse, and scattered pairs may be found even in the environs of our larger cities.
He commented on the “lean” and “fat” periods of its population cycles, which occurred as far back as 1879 without any “special connection with hunting.” He devoted considerable text to the possibility that cycles were related to tularemia (Bacterium tularense), a common disease associated with snowshoe hare. More recent evidence disputes the role of disease in the mortality of wild populations.
Roberts (1932) documented confirmed nests with eggs or young from 1877 to 1924 in Anoka, Becker, Hennepin, Isanti, Marshall, Morrison, Polk, Stearns, and Wright Counties, as well as a covey of young at Itasca State Park. A nest was also documented in Morrison County.
Forty years later and in contrast to Roberts’s optimistic viewpoint of the Ruffed Grouse’s occupancy throughout woodlands of the state, Green and Janssen (1975) limited its range to the “forested portions of the state.” They outlined a distribution that eliminated the southern and southwestern counties west of a line from central Fillmore County to the Twin Cities metropolitan area, west to Swift County and north to central Kittson County. Most of the western tier of counties in Minnesota were not included in the Ruffed Grouse’s distribution. Green and Janssen stated that there had been no reports of the species from Hennepin County for 25 years. They documented confirmed nesting in 31 counties, all within forested areas of the state.
Janssen (1987) described a Ruffed Grouse distribution similar to that reported by Green and Janssen (1975) but with potential extensions west into Rice County (Nerstrand Woods State Park) and eastern Steele County. He also reported a reintroduction of the species into the Hennepin County Park system in 1972, which produced some success, as documented by Sivets (1975) in Morris Baker County Park in 1974, and by Gillette (1976) in Elm Creek, Baker, and Crow-Hassan Park Reserves from 1974 to 1976. Janssen reported confirmed nesting records in 36 counties since 1970. The counties encompassed the same general range as Green and Janssen’s (1975) distribution but extended the western boundary to include Becker County and northeastern Grant County. Hertzel and Janssen (1998) reported 42 counties with confirmed nesting records since 1970 when they added Fillmore, Kandiyohi, Olmsted, Pennington, Roseau, and Winona Counties to Janssen’s 1987 list.
The Minnesota Biological Survey reported 304 breeding season locations, which were consistent with the ranges described by both Green and Janssen (1975) and Janssen (1987), except for 1 location in Nicollet County in southern Minnesota (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2017a). Locations were numerous in many counties, including in Aitkin, southern Beltrami, southern Cass, Clearwater, Cook, Houston, northern Lake, Itasca, Marshall, northwestern Morrison, Otter Tail, Pine, northern St. Louis, and Winona Counties.
The participants in the MNBBA reported 2,239 records, which corresponded well with what had been previously described by Green and Janssen (1975) and Janssen (1987) (Figure 2). Ruffed Grouse breeding evidence was found in 26.0% (1,272/4,899) of all blocks surveyed and in 26.1% (610/2,337) of priority blocks (Figure 3; Table 1). By far, most of the breeding evidence records were of probable nesting, in 51.2% (651 of 1,272) of all blocks with records. Confirmed nesting was found in 227 blocks and 32 counties, including 2 counties (Chisago and Todd) that were not previously reported by Hertzel and Janssen (1998). Breeding records were particularly dense in the northeastern and northern regions of the state, basically north from northern Mille Lacs County to central Becker County and east from eastern Marshall and eastern Roseau Counties. Observations were lacking from the Twin Cities metropolitan area, including Hennepin, Ramsey, and the western metropolitan counties of Carver and Wright.
The landcover suitability map for the Ruffed Grouse illustrates that the most suitable habitat for the species is northeastern Minnesota, with suitability decreasing to the west and to the south (Figure 4). Sparse populations are predicted in southeastern Minnesota and in extreme northwestern Minnesota.
Changes in the Minnesota distribution of the Ruffed Grouse have primarily been retractions from the southwest, south, and western margins of its former range reported by Roberts (1932). In their review of the Ruffed Grouse in North America, Rusch et al. (2000) said these retractions were widespread throughout many areas, including riparian woodlands of the Dakotas, eastern Iowa, eastern Kansas, and Nebraska. Further, Ruffed Grouse once occupied all of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, northwest Arkansas, western Tennessee, western Kentucky, eastern Maryland, and eastern Virginia. In many of these areas, Ruffed Grouse have been reintroduced. Roberts (1932) reported individuals or populations being maintained in fragmented woodlands in the southwest and in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, often following reintroductions. These were likely what we now call “sink” populations, in which reproduction is highly variable or very poor and which require constant recolonization from other “source” populations or restocking programs.
Historical changes in the Ruffed Grouse’s distribution were largely due to land clearing for agriculture and settlements, the consequent reduction in contiguous forest habitat, and market hunting (e.g., Rusch et al. 2000). Schorger (1945) described presettlement fires that maintained oak-dominated forest types in southern Wisconsin and higher grouse densities in the south. Settlements and agriculture in the latter 1800s and early 1900s resulted in reduced forest area in southern areas of the state. Increased logging in the northern forests, formerly dominated by conifers and northern hardwoods, created more habitat and increased populations in northern Wisconsin. Regenerating forests with increased aspen and birch cover types also provided a better food source for the species. Similar retractions of the species’ range from the south portions of Ontario (Cadman et al. 1987) and Michigan (Brewer et al. 1991) have also been documented.
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.