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From Backyards to Backwoods: Feathers show phases of growth in grouses

Photo tip: This ruffed grouse is easy to keep in focus if you train your camera on the eye. (Steve Maanum / For the Enterprise)

The column is called "From Backyards to Backwoods "and since we were in the backyard last week talking about hummingbirds, it's only right that we travel to the backwoods this week to discuss ruffed grouse.

While teaching 7th grade science, there were several years I brought a freshly harvested grouse into the classroom. I began by showing students the size, shape, and coloration of the bird.

We looked at the top notch on the head and the collar of dark feathers that surrounded the neck. When we looked at the feet, I pointed out the hair-like extensions on each toe as we discussed their purpose and what they were called.

Then we parted the feathers behind each eye and found the ear holes. Most students had never seen the ears on a bird before.

There were two internal features I shared, but never forced anyone to look at them if they didn't want to. I removed the gizzard. Some students mentioned seeing turkey gizzards at Thanksgiving and others even admitted to eating them, but not too many knew what was inside a gizzard or what purpose it served.

I also removed the crop to identify food sources. Whether you're a hunter, photographer, or bird watcher, knowing what a bird eats is a good way to locate it in the wild.

Grouse food charts were developed through the work of the late Gordon Gullion who was a forester/wildlife researcher from the Cloquet area.

Much of his work dealt with managing northern forests for wildlife. That included the dependence of ruffed grouse on the aspen forest. Gullion died in 1991, but the data on grouse habitat he collected over thirty-five years has been used to develop habitat models. In fact, the area where much of the research was done has been named the Gordon Gullion Memorial Ruffed Grouse Management Unit.

Part of his study dealt with color phases. As a result of that research, I had students bring in grouse tails. A typical fall science activity was always classifying leaves. Well, we took that a step further and classified grouse tails. According to Gullion there were approximately two dozen variations in grouse tail patterns.

The bird could be a red phase, a gray phase, or a brown phase. Its tail could have a black band or a chocolate band and that band could be clear, broken, blotched, or fuzzy.

Red-phased grouse seemed more abundant during the "up years" of the 10-12 year grouse population cycle.

Tip for kids

In closing, the teacher part of me has to leave you with an assignment. Go on-line and read about Gordon Gullion. Find out what the extensions on grouse toes are called and what they are used for. Show a child the ears on a grouse and classify your grouse tails this fall.

Gullion's book, "Grouse of the North Shore," is out of print, but if you can find a copy, it's a treasure for anyone's library.

If you have questions for me, e-mail me at