by Mary Holland
Dispersal, finding food, and survival on their own are three of the main challenges that ruffed grouse, also known as partridge, face every fall and winter. The manner in which they confront each of these tasks proves ruffed grouse to be one of the most adaptive species of overwintering Massachusetts birds.
The challenge of dispersing falls to the young of the year. By the time they are a little over four months old, grouse begin leaving their brood. Males are usually the first to leave, perhaps because they have a more rigorous search ahead of them. It is very important that they find a territory to claim before winter, as research indicates that males with established territories are the most successful at attracting females in the spring. Their quest is not a simple one. They must find an area that has not already been claimed by an older male, plus one that is suitable for winter survival (plenty of food) as well as spring drumming (a courtship ritual that males perform by beating their wings, often while standing on a log).
This is a formidable task, and it is not unusual for a young male grouse to return to its brood several times before finding an appropriate territory for itself.
Young females also are searching for territories, especially those with good nesting cover. Males tend to travel about 250 yards per day, while females wander roughly 500 yards at a time. Males usually travel one to two miles before finding an appropriate area, while females have been known to travel up to 10 miles (but usually less).
Finding food during the fall usually isn't very difficult–acorns, mushrooms and berries are abundant. But eventually grouse are forced to switch their diet from mostly fruits and nuts, which are either gone or buried by snow, to buds. By October or November, most grouse have returned to trees as the main source of their diet. Aspen buds and catkins (flower buds) of hazel, alder, and birch sustain them through the winter. Because a grouse stores very little fat, it must eat daily during the colder months. It confines its exposure to predators by rapidly feeding for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day, storing the food in its crop, and digesting it later, under cover.
Read the rest of the Harvard Press article for more information