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Bill Marchel: The story of Ruff, an extraordinary grouse

My relationship with Ruff began during winter three years earlier. Much to my surprise, Ruff would allow me to get within camera range without flying away.

A ruffed grouse strutting in the woods.
Out of thousands of images Marchel took of Ruff, this is one of his favorites. Ruff is strutting from his drumming log, a stage Marchel created by dropping a big aspen tree.
Photo by Bill Marchel

BRAINERD — It wasn’t what I was hoping to find as I wandered my property on a cold January day. Atop the snow lay a pile of feathers, grouse feathers to be exact. I knew the remains were that of Ruff, a wild ruffed grouse with which I had a unique, three-year relationship.

A grouse sits in a tree.
During winter, Ruff fed on crab apples in Marchel’s yard almost daily. This image was taken on a cold day so the grouse has his feathers fluffed for added insulation.
Photo by Bill Marchel

Ruff had met his demise at the talons of a hawk or owl. Saddened, I gathered a few of his feathers and headed for home.

Ruff was what grouse enthusiasts call a “gray phase bronze” bird, which means his neck ruffs and tail band were “bronze” instead of the much more common black. That allowed me to identify his remains.

My relationship with Ruff began during winter three years earlier when I would see him feeding on crab apples in my yard. Much to my surprise, Ruff would allow me to get within camera range without flying away. In fact, he would pay scant attention to me, and even fed when I was only a few yards from him, which is highly unusual behavior for a grouse.

That winter, using a chainsaw, I dropped a large aspen tree in hopes Ruff would use it as his drumming log. The aspen was within sight and sound of my house. I kept my fingers crossed he’d use that log as his stage.


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Then one day in March I heard the unmistakable thump, thump, thump of a grouse drumming and, from the direction of the sound and its proximity, I knew a male grouse had found my log to his liking. Using binoculars, I verified the grouse was Ruff.

My next move was to place a photography blind within “shooting distance” of the log, and hopefully attain photos.

I gave Ruff a few weeks to become accustomed to my photo blind. As time passed, Ruff became more and more active with his drumming. The peak of drumming for ruffed grouse is about mid-April. It was really special to be able to watch and listen to him drum from my home.

A grouse waves its wings in the air while drumming on a log.
Ruff is drumming, the grouse’s version of a courtship bird song. The unique drumming sound is made when a grouse strikes the air vigorously enough to cause a miniature sonic boom. Marchel could see and hear Ruff drum from inside his home.
Photo by Bill Marchel

One clear and calm early April morning I snuck into my blind an hour or so prior to sunrise. Not long after Ruff arrived at his stage and began to drum. I watched in awe. Finally, when there was enough light for photography, I shot away, taking hundreds of images. Ruff paid zero attention to the sound of my camera, and my occasional rustling around in my blind.

For the next two years Ruff and I had numerous encounters. Eventually Ruff became so accustomed to my presence I could photograph him drumming and strutting without being in a blind.

During summer, Ruff would typically disappear, only to reappear in fall. He, along with several other grouse, fed on my crab apple trees, but Ruff was the only one that would tolerate me at close range.

The third and final spring I was able to interact with Ruff, he oddly became less tolerant of me. He didn’t have a favorite drumming log, and in fact used four different logs to proclaim his intentions to any female grouse willing to listen. And that summer he disappeared.

Then, come fall, as usual, Ruff and other grouse showed up again. I saw him feeding on crab apples nearly every day but almost always before and after sunset. It’s typical for grouse to feed at prior to dawn and at dusk.
But then, about mid-January, Ruff disappeared. I had seen a goshawk and a barred owl hunting near my house, so I was concerned Ruff may have been killed. And that’s just what had happened, as I describe at the beginning of this column.


It was a sad day when I found his remains. However, it was a bit comforting to know what happened to him, rather than watch and wonder for weeks and months, not knowing if was alive or dead.

Last week I put together a tribute to Ruff. I framed and matted a 16 by 24 print of Ruff, and included a few of his tail feathers and neck ruff under the glass. It hangs in a prominent location in my home, a daily reminder of how fortunate I was to have such a unique relationship with a wild ruffed grouse.

A photo and feathers in a picture frame hung on a wall.
This tribute to Ruff — a very special ruffed grouse — hangs on Marchel’s living room wall. The display includes of a few of Ruff’s feathers Marchel was able to retrieve at the site where the grouse was killed by a raptor.
Photo by Bill Marchel
Bill Marchel
Bill Marchel

BILL MARCHEL is a wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer whose work appears in many regional and national publications as well as the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at bill@billmarchel.com. You also can visit his website at BillMARCHEL.com.

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