Podcast

See and Hear the Ruffed Grouse's Haunting Air Drumming

How the birds produce their unusual thrumming was a long-time mystery, solved only with the advent of wildlife cinematography.


Ruffed Grouse. Video: Pronghorn Productions/Shutterstock

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of the National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.

Transcript:

This is BirdNote.

It may be the weirdest noise in the woods: the thrumming whumps of the male Ruffed Grouse.

Familiar as these accelerating burps still are to hunters and hikers of the north woods, the origin of this bizarre sound was long a mystery.

More than 250 years ago, the famous Philadelphia naturalist John Bartram informed his English colleagues that the grouse produced their drumming “by clapping their wings against their sides.” Others hypothesized that the sound arose when the wings were beat against the puffed-up breast, or when they were clapped together. Some suggested that the bird was striking on its perch with its wings, or even its feet.

It took the advent of wildlife cinematography to solve the riddle.

In the spring of 1929, Cornell University’s Arthur A. Allen filmed a drumming Ruffed Grouse. Frame-by-frame analysis proved that the wings were striking nothing but air—hard and fast enough to produce popping sounds that ran together into the whirring drum.

No longer a mystery, the drumming of the grouse remains one of the most evocative sounds of the North American forest.

For BirdNote, I’m Mary McCann.

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Credits:

Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Ruffed Grouse [216783] recorded by Bob McGuire.

BirdNote's theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

Producer: John Kessler

Executive Producer: Dominic Black

Narrator: Mary McCann

Written by Rick Wright

© 2016 Tune In to Nature.org, July 2018

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