Ruffed Grouse and the Christmas Bird Count

Ruffed Grouse and the Christmas Bird Count: Ruffed Grouse, Bonasa umbellus
Ruffed Grouse
Bonasa umbellus
Courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
I set out this week to investigate why so many gifts in ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ are birds. You know the song: there are swans a swimming, geese a laying, calling birds, French hens, turtle doves, and that partridge in the pear tree. Well, I never did find the answer. But what I did find was some interesting information about a native bird often incorrectly referred to as a partridge –a bird that is supremely well adapted to life in winter. Ruffed Grouse and the Christmas Bird Count

Ruffed grouse resemble partridges in that they are ground-dwelling game birds of similar size and stature. Their name comes from a collar of long feathers surrounding the necks of males who fluff them out when seeking mates in spring. The birds come in two color phases, differentiated mainly by their tail feathers, which can be either gray or chestnut brown. While not well understood, a grouse’s color phase seems to be linked to climate. Grouse with gray tails are more prevalent in areas defined by cold winters, while brown grouse are more common in warmer climates.

Now that snow is blanketing the landscape across much of their territory, the ruffed grouse is in its element. Harsh winters that adversely affect populations of other ground-dwelling game birds such as quail, pheasant, and turkeys, don’t seem to faze ruffed grouse. Their ability to survive is dictated by a number of special adaptations. The first is on their feet, where each winter nubby feathers called pectinations grow on the sides of the birds’ toes. Looking like strange combs, the bristles act as snowshoes, allowing the grouse to walk on top of even the softest snow. More special feathers grow on grouse legs like personal leg-warmers, and also near the bird’s beak, covering its nostrils. Scientists believe the feathered mustache enables grouse to breathe in warmer air than they otherwise would, thus keeping their internal temperature more stable.

Changes in weather bring about some changes in behavior as well. Warmer months find the birds resting in evergreens or thick brush. But in winter, when a foot or more snow covers the ground, grouse roost in the snow. The birds create small burrows which hide them from predators, offer protection from frigid winter winds, and keep them surprisingly snug and warm. Many a backcountry skier or snowshoer has been startled by a hidden grouse bursting noisily from its snowy lair.

The birds’ diet also changes seasonally from a summer sampling of green foliage, seeds, berries and insects, to the protein-rich dormant flower buds of trees such as aspen and birch. Grouse also won’t hesitate to eat the sweet flower buds of domestic trees like apples, and were at one time considered a pest in New England orchards. And so it’s actually not out of the question that within ruffed grouse territory, you might wake up one Christmas morning to find a ‘partridge’ in your pear tree.

Speaking of birds and the holiday season, it’s nearly time for the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count. Over the next few weeks, tens of thousands of volunteers around the country will join in this 113-year-old tradition, collecting data on the types and numbers of birds living in their area. This data allows scientists to monitor and track populations over time and space. Participants can be seasoned birders, first timers, or anything in-between. In Logan, Ogden, Salt Lake, and Zion National Park, the count takes place Saturday, December 15th. Other locations around the state will host their events between now and January 5th. To find a count near you, visit and click on Christmas Bird Count. For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

Ruffed Grouse and the Christmas Bird Count-Credits:

Images: Courtesy Utah Division of Natural Resources

Text:     Andrea Liberatore,
            Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.

Ruffed Grouse and the Christmas Bird Count-Additional Reading:

Furtman, Michael. ( 1999) Ruffed Grouse: Woodland Drummer. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA.

Rawley, E. V., W. J. Bailey, D. L. Mitchell, J. Roberson, and J. Leatham. 1996. Utah upland game. Publication number 63-12. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Salt Lake City. Modified text available online at:

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (2012) Ruffed Grouse. Available online at:

National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count:

Utah Christmas Bird Counts:

Logan Christmas Bird Count:
Bridgerland Audubon Society Logan Christmas Bird Count 15 Dec 2012

Christmas Bird Count

National Audubon
Christmas Bird Count page
Image courtesy National Audubon,

The Christmas holidays bring us a bevy of welcome annual traditions. We listen to the melodies of the Nutcracker and traditional carols.

[Black-capped Chickadee recording by Kevin Colver: Songbirds of the Rocky Mountain Foothills]

Many also listen for bird melodies as we join in the annual Christmas Bird Count. These are exhaustive, one-day surveys of all the individuals of every species of bird found in a locality. Christmas Bird Counts began 111 years ago in New York City as a holiday alternative to the excesses of a hunt that targeted all birds. Provo’s count followed soon after in 1903.

From that first inspiration, the Christmas Bird Count has spread to all 50 states and throughout the Americas. Last year, there were 2,600 counts, totaling 56 million individual birds representing over 2,300 species. Last holiday season, hundreds of Utahns participated in 24 local counts, reporting 184 bird species from Saint George north to Bear Lake.

I always join Logan’s Bridgerland Audubon count, which has been running for 54 years. Last year, with 62 participants we found 99 bird species in our standard count circle of 150 square miles. That’s remarkable for a chilly winter’s day, considering that many of our feathered friends have hightailed it south for the winter. But note that some northerly species, such as Rough-legged Hawks, view Utah as the balmy endpoint of their fall migration.

Christmas Bird Counts offer something for everyone, from novices to seasoned birders. Some choose simple feeder counts; others undertake vigorous back country walkabouts. Some will be up in the predawn, listening for owls.

[Great Horned Owl recording by Kevin Colver: Songbirds of the Southwest Canyon Country]

Every count’s data contributes to long-term research about winter dispersal patterns of birds and their population trends. If you like birds, join in the fun and make the Christmas Bird Count one of your holiday traditions.

All counts are scheduled between December 14 and January 5. Utah’s Christmas Bird counts are listed on our website: just search for Wild About Utah or go to the UtahBirds website directly. Our Logan count is on Saturday, December 18. That evening, we’ll all flock together for a big potluck party where we tally up our bird count totals.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Photos: Courtesy National Audubon,
Sounds: Courtesy & Copyright Kevin Colver,
Text: Linda Kervin & Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Christmas Bird Counts in Utah,, Milt Moody, Webmaster,

The 109th Christmas Bird Count: Citizen Science in Action, National Audubon Society, Inc.
Idaho Circles:
Utah Circles: