The Drummer in the Woods

The Male Grouse

The male grouse habitat is very specific. It is 8-10 acres in size and must have food and cover to meet their needs year round. In prime habitat, many times one can find male grouse spaced apart between 150 – 160 yards. These prime areas provide the ultimate in cover and food for the male grouse throughout the year.

One should note that when grouse are at the low of the cycle, often it is finding places like this that gives a hunter the best opportunity for flushes and good dog work. When the population is at its peak, male grouse are pushed out into less suitable areas that are inadequate in both food and cover. In other words, when hunting in the low part of the cycle, the habitat has to be the best of the best.

The adult male grouse will know every escape route. Since the male knows his area, he will be the most difficult grouse to hunt because he will shift with your every move and almost seems to be thinking ahead of every step you and your dog take. He has learned that pressure means to move for cover and not hesitate. Over the years I have watched juveniles sit on their log and let me get very close. Not so with a seasoned adult. He quietly slips off the log and is gone.

In the springtime when the drumming season is at its peak, it is critical to take time to check out potential habitat for future fall hunting by conducting your own drumming counts. This time of year will also let one know when some habitat is past its prime. As an area ages out there will be less suitable habitat and the number of drummers will decrease. Thus one knows that in a matter of a few years this area will not hold birds.

To the left is an aerial photo of an area that I found during the low in the grouse cycle.

The first year I checked this area, there were only three drummers. As the next few years progressed, additional drummers established their own areas. The past year I found drummers in the younger cuts and would expect this next year to find additional drummers, pending the outcome of our winter.

The Drummer

The male grouse creates the noise we hear by leaning back on its tail and striking his wings against the air, forming a momentary vacuum. This noise will last from 5-8 seconds and can be heard up to ½ mile away along lakes and ¼ mile in the woods. In thick pine and spruce cover, one may only hear the grouse 1/8th of a mile. The male grouse will typically beat his wings 45-48 times within 5-8 seconds when drumming.

When you hear the male grouse drumming in the spring, make sure you look at your watch and take note of the time. Typically the male grouse drums every four minutes. However, if the drums are less than four minutes apart, a female could be present. There have been times I have heard drums a little over a minute apart. However, if a male drummer is by himself, the intervals between drums can be 12 or 16 minutes apart.

Some male grouse will switch directions when drumming, thus throwing the sound off by 30-40 degrees. This can cause confusion in trying to locate the bird.

Temperature is also a factor in drumming. Here in the upper Midwest, mornings in late April when the temperature is between 24-36°F provide some of the best times to listen for drummers. When temperatures reach above 42°F, fewer grouse will drum. During the drumming peak many drummers will visit their logs during the night and stay there until morning.

Located on the drumming log, chosen by the male grouse, is a portion of the log referred to as the drumming stage which is an 8” area he stands on when he drums. (The photo to the right shows a rock used as a drumming site. Note the Cuddeback camera in the background) When looking at drumming sites, one can easily tell the primary direction that the grouse faces while drumming by locating the pile of droppings. The drumming log also needs to be a minimum of 12-14 inches elevated. Dense shrub composition also needs to be located around the drumming site. The male grouse likes to have a 40-60’ viewing area while drumming. All this is needed for a male to feel comfortable while on his drumming log. The log that is used the most is called the “primary log”. Sometimes a grouse will use another log from time to time and that is called an “alternate log”. Male grouse many times have “alternate logs”. Take time to look for fresh droppings and for molted primaries. These are all indications of whether a log or drumming site is being visited regularly.

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