Grouse Color Phases – What You Need To Know

**Excerpt from A Grouse in the Hand, Tips for Examining, Aging & Sexing Ruffed Grouse published 2014 by RGS and authored by S. DeStefano, R.L. Ruff and S.R. Craven.

GIH Cover imageMany species of wildlife show various color phases. “Red” foxes can be red, black or crossed. “Black” bears can be black, brown or blond. And, screech owls are red or gray. Ruffed grouse are rare among birds in that they can exhibit so much color variation. This color variation is genetically controlled and unlike most other birds it is independent of sex.

Although somewhat subjective, there are five color phases typically recognized for ruffed grouse, and these are determined by the color of the the tail feathers. These five color phases are gray, red, intermediate, brown and split.

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GRAY

“Gray” birds, not surprisingly, have tail feathers that are uniformly gray, and likewise, “red” birds are characterized by chestnut or umber tail feathers. “Intermediate” birds have gray tails with a wash of light brown throughout. “Brown” birds, which are always males, have light brown tails and relatively distinct black and white transverse bars that stretch across most of the tail feathers. A hybrid color phase is the “split” bird, which is always a female. Split phase birds are generally gray or intermediate with some or all of the tail feathers showing streaks of the chestnut of red birds.

 

RED

RED

INTERMEDIATE

INTERMEDIATE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BROWN

BROWN

SPLIT

SPLIT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The vast majority of ruffed grouse have a black tail band and a black ruff of feathers around the neck. Approximately five percent have a tail band and ruff that are bronze or chocolate in color. Tail band and ruff coloration is independent of color phase.

Geographically, gray, intermediate and brown birds are found in the northern portions of the range (northern tier of U.S. and north) – red birds are predominate further south, and not surprisingly, there is some mixing of gray and red in the transition region. Red birds are better camouflaged on a forest floor of predominantly oak leaves, and gray birds are less conspicuous on snow – hence the geographic separation.

Interestingly, grouse in the relatively moist climates of west of the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific northwest can demonstrate some of the deepest hues of red, and birds of the west more arid climates in the intermountain west are often very light gray. However, other researchers believe that color phase of the bird may be tied to its physiological response to cold. For example, gray phase screech owls are more common in the northern parts of their range than red phase screech owls, and it has been shown that gray phase owls are more capable of withstanding cold temperatures. The same may be true of ruffed grouse.

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**Excerpt from RGS & AWS Director of Conservation Policy Dan Dessecker following the 2015 National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt.

Although somewhat subjective, there are five color phases typically recognized for ruffed grouse, and these are determined by the color of the tail feathers.  These five color phases are gray, red, intermediate, brown and split.  All of these color phases are designed to blend in with the local surroundings.

Brown-phase birds account for approximately 7 percent of all birds harvested at the National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt (NGWH) since 1987.  These birds are virtually always males – I have found only two brown-phase females in my 29 years at the NGWH.

At the 2015 NGWH, two brown-phase females were harvested from the same team on the second hunt day. One bird was an adult female, and the other an immature female.  It’s likely that the brown-phase immature bird was from the brood of the brown-phase adult.

Never in the history of the Hunt have two brown-phase females been harvested in the same year.  The odds against a single team harvesting two brown-phase females the same day are astronomical.

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For more information about grouse color phases and much more about grouse ecology along with a field tool to help you age and sex harvested grouse in the field, purchase the RGS publication A Grouse in the Hand, Tips for Examining, Aging & Sexing Ruffed Grouse for only $4 from the RGS MART HERE.

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