The repopulation of a once-popular game bird is nothing to grouse about in Kansas.
One hundred years ago, a walk through wooded areas in northeast Kansas would likely flush dozens of ruffed grouse from the undergrowth.
Such a sight is now rare and available only in a limited number of Kansas counties, and bird watchers must be patient if they want to see one of the gray-brown birds -- Bonasa umbellus -- with a fan-shaped tail.
A long-favored entree, the ruffed grouse fell victim to unchecked hunting and clearing of wooded areas. Grouse nest on the ground and need bushy undergrowth to survive.
"The simple fact is that a lot of the woodlands have been cleared for farmland or pasture," said Randy Rodgers, a Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks research biologist, who helped release 549 of the birds in Kansas from 1983 to 1989. The releases, in Atchison, Bourbon, Douglas, Jefferson, Johnson, Leavenworth, Linn and Miami counties, brought ruffed grouse back to Kansas for the first time since around the turn of the century.
"Back then, it was common for small homesteads to be spread across the land, and some had cows and they typically allowed them to graze in the woodlands," Rodgers said. "The ruffed grouse is very dependent on the brushy undergrowth to survive. The cattle that graze in those situations are very hard on that habitat."
Current numbers aren't available, but Rodgers said some of the releases, including 111 birds at Perry Lake and 50 at Douglas State Fishing Lake, were successful. Birds released in southeast Kansas and Johnson County, however, didn't survive.
"Maybe we were perhaps naive to think it could happen (in Johnson County)," Rodgers said. "There are too many developed areas there, and it's destroyed the habitat.
"If we have a house in every 10-acre patch of woods, that will surely lead to their demise. The other factor is that with people who have homes in the woodlands of eastern Kansas, there's a tendency to clear out the brush and leave the trees. That destroys the habitat for the ruffed grouse and other species."
Rodgers said the program was started with hopes that the number of grouse would steadily increase until a hunting program could be started. It's not likely a ruffed grouse season will be set, he said, because the number of birds won't support it.
Ironically, hunters are more likely to see ruffed grouse than anyone else, because they tend to stay in one area for long periods of time. Turkey and deer hunters, in tree stands or on the ground, have reported seeing grouse in several areas in northeast Kansas.
"They're very hard to spot. They're a very reclusive bird and they're not likely to let you get near them," Rodgers said. "They have excellent camouflage. Their coloration blends in very well with the leaf litter on the floor."
It's easier to hear a ruffed grouse, which has a distinctive mating call. The male finds a log or a stump, fans out its tail and flares its black neck tufts. The grouse then rapidly beats the air with its wings, producing a drum-like sound that increases in tempo.
"I've always said that it's like a real old tractor starting on a cold morning," Rodgers said. "It's something people may hear and not know what they're hearing. It's not a vocalization, it's a process of a low thumping that increases in frequency."
The ruffed grouse in Kansas were trapped in southwestern Wisconsin, through a collaborative effort by KDWP, Wisconsin's Division of Wildlife and the Kansas City Chapter of Safari International. Twenty percent of the catch was returned to Wisconsin, which traded the ruffed grouse to Missouri in return for Eastern Wild Turkeys.
Ruffed grouse are not migratory. Their clutches, a hatch of eggs, usually consist of 11 or 12 eggs.