Ruffed Grouse Drumming

Most male birds attract mates and proclaim territories by singing with the help of a voice box, or syrinx, located in the windpipe just above the heart. But a variety of species augment vocal sounds by producing “mechanical communication signals,” using portions of their anatomy to create sound. For instance, woodpeckers drum rapidly on resonant wood with their beaks to alert other woodpeckers of their whereabouts. And hummingbirds court by flying rapidly to and fro, making high-pitched metallic sounds caused by air vibrating off their stiff wing feathers. But to me, the most amazing of all mechanical bird sounds is the drumming of the Ruffed Grouse, a chickenlike bird that inhabits deciduous and mixed forests from northern Georgia all the way to Alaska.

photo of Ruffed Grouse starting to drumIn the spring, male grouse perch on fallen logs in the forest, often arriving before dawn’s light. The male begins his drumming display by bracing his tail, puffing up his breast, and ruffling his neck feathers. Then he opens and closes his wings in rapid succession, producing very low-pitchecd thumps at a frequency of only 60 cycles per second (= 60Hz). The thumping starts out slow but quickly gains in speed, and the rapidly beating wings turn into a complete blur as the drumroll reaches its peak.

How on earth does the grouse produce such an unusual sound? Early investigators assumed that the thumps were caused by compression of air against the male’s breast as the wings were suddenly drawn inward, like Tarzan beating on his chest. But this is incorrect: the thumps are actualy little sonic booms created as air suddenly rushes to fill a vacuum made when the wings are thrust outward from the breast. Regardless of how the sound is made, grouse drumming is amazing to behold, a low-pitched marvel that is often felt more than it is heard.

(the above text is excerpted from The Songs of Wild Birds, a book-and-CD by Lang Elliott, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.)

Below is a recording of a single drum of a male. Notice all the low frequency content and also the interesting timing. The drum gradually speeds up, but unevenly at first. This timing pattern is typical of the species, at least in Eastern North America, and there are only minor variations among the drums of a single male (note: drums are so low-pitched that you may not hear them unless you listen with headphones or play through speakers accompanied by a subwoofer):

Ruffed Grouse drumming, 5am, 17 April 2009, Connecticut Hill State Game Management Area near Ithaca New York. © Lang Elliott.

NOTE: Our Ruffed Grouse video features footage gathered in late March and early April 2009 at the Connecticut Hill State Game Management Area near Ithaca New York (see map below). Bob McGuire and I located at least five drumming logs, but only one of them ended up being productive for us. That log was situated right next to a dirt road and the resident male was well-habituated to passing cars and other disturbances. This worked to our advantage. While most footage was obtained using a portable blind, my favorite sequence of the grouse drumming during a snowstorm was made from my parked car! Along with gathering our own video and sound, my friends Marie Read and John Cancalosi both photographed the grouse, and Martha Fischer of the Cornell Lab recorded his drumming.



Connecticut Hill State Game Management Area

Comments

  1. We have a place out in the woods near Big Rapids Michigan. The Grouse drum all day and ALL night. Right now it is a few times an hour. Later in the year not quite as much. I cant quite figure out when he sleeps. I have not actually seen him doing his drumming yet….but had to go online to show my wife what he is actually doing. Nice video…

  2. I have one on my property that comes to the sound of my 4 wheeler. He displays and allows himself to be picked up. He hasn’t drummed yet. I’ve heard that they will also come to the sound of chain saws. If you sit with him long enough, he will climb onto your shoulder and peck your head. He’s been around for about 6 months.

  3. Steve Ainsworth says:

    On June 21, 2012 I was hiking the Appalachian Trail in the 100 mile wilderness near Mt Katahdin. It was about 8 in the morning in a lowland deciduous forest. As I hiked a grouse stepped onto the trail about 20 feet in front of me. He spread his tail feathers in a marvelous display and then inflated himself to twice his size and proceeded to drum at me. As the drumming became more aggressive, I backed up to give him space, only to trip and fall. The grouse jumped on top of me. I swatted him away, but before I could get up he jumped on me again. A second swat forced him to fly to a nearby log. I was unaware of this drumming in males and had presumed it was a female. (I also observed the broken wing act of a female on another occasion). I was surprised to discover that this is the activity of a male. Why would the male jump out onto the trail so late in the year? Are they fairly protective of their area throughout the year? Is it unusual for them to be so aggressive as to charge a human? I also heard of another hiker who had a similar experience although I never met him to compare notes. I hope you can shed light on this. It was a spectacular display!

    • That’s a great story! It’s unusual, but every now and then one comes across a grouse that seems quite attracted to humans. I’m not sure why. They are often aggressive and will follow people around, displaying and even drumming. Seems partly aggressive but also with elements of displaying to a female (that’s usually what drumming and ruffling is about).

      Last autumn I visited a friend in the Syracuse area and we went out to videotape such a grouse at a nearby nature center. It wasn’t the drumming season, but the guy followed us around, ruffled at us, even pecked at us if we got too close. I heard he had chased a woman hiker down the trail, totally freaking her out.

  4. Zack Frieben says:

    Amazing! In southern Michigan, where I live, the Ruffed Grouse is a scarce resident of wooded areas. Hence, I have never seen or heard one, but I have tried looking for them at Russ Forest, an undisturbed forest in Volinia, MI. I will continue searching until I find one. Worse case scenario, I will look for them in Canada.

  5. Thanks so much for posting this! I first heard the noise of the drumming in March on Silar Bald in North Carolina. My boyfriend and I got so freaked out that we thought it was witches casting a spell on us! We felt it only twice, and had no idea what it was. We described it to everyone we knew, saying it felt like sonic waves, or a deep bass drum, and no one had any idea what we were talking about! Someone even suggested we might have felt a miniature tremor.
    We went back this past weekend to Silar Bald, hoping to feel that sensation again and possibly find out what it was. While sitting around for an hour we felt it easily ten times! We tried timing the intervals, feeling where it was coming from…nothing helped us get closer to figuring out what it was. The next morning, we saw another hiker, and mentioned the noise to him. He knew instantly that it was the grouse’s drumming that we heard!
    It was such a fun mystery trying to figure out what that sound was, and feeling the sensation of the grouse drumming is a strange experience that I hope to experience again! We never would have guessed it was a bird making little sonic booms probably not too far from us.
    Love the video, I never would have imagined the grouse to be so cute!

  6. Charles Otis says:

    Gratifying video. It teaches alot about the ruffed grouse, especially to those who never heard this sound before.

  7. I like the addition of the sonogram player. A nice visualization of the pattern of drumming.

  8. Gorgeous post. I can’t get enough of the video. Great story too.

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