Understanding color phases


For years and years and years color phases in grouse have been a subject of controversy or discussion. Most people recognize two to three color phases in a bird. Red, Gray, and Brown. Some folks recognize a fourth and fifth color phase, the split and intermediates color phases. And in rare cases you hear talk of another color phase but I'm not going to dive into it because it probably doesn't exist.
Photo of a red phase from reelwatersmi.com
For all but the most discerning hunter, the Split, and Intermediate color phase can be lumped in with the brown and gray birds but if you want to get crazy with it, knock yourself out. There is a great article on the Ruffed Grouse Society's website that describes all five.

photo of a gray phase from allaboutbirds.org
Below is an excerpt from the RGS Blog...

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.
**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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