We saw this bird in the middle of a gravel/dirt road while scouting for our BBS out of Valley of the Giants in the Coast Range. We stopped, she stopped. She talked softly to chicks that were alongside the road in the brush who talked softly back. Eventually, she walked alongside our van (opposite side of the road from her chicks) and to the back of the van where she then crossed the road to her chicks. I thought at the time she was a Ruffed Grouse, as she appeared brown. But when I looked at my photo, she did not look like the Ruffed Grouse in our woods: no crest, no black barring on her flanks, no black band on her tail. (The dark thing at the end of her tail is the shadow of a rock below. Perhaps that's easier to see in the second, original, large version.) Instead she has a gray band at the end of her tail, a very decorative face pattern, and lots of mottling. I found some pictures on the web of Sooty Grouse that look like her but I never trust that what photos are labelled on the web is what they really are. So I asked two good birders. One said Ruffed with certainty. The other said Sooty, with equal certainty. I'd love more feedback with reasons.
Thanks to Hendrik Herlyn for this helpful reply: "Your photos show a Sooty Grouse. One of the key field marks to distinguish between Sooty and Ruffed Grouse is the band at the end of the tail. It is pale slaty-gray in Sooty, while Ruffed has a broad black subterminal band with narrow, buffy tips. In both of your photos, the gray band of a Sooty is clearly visible. Ruffed also tends to have a more peaked-looking head, due to its little crest. Your bird shows the rounded head of a typical Sooty. The pattern on the flanks is another good indication for Sooty – rows of white spots on a brownish background. Both sexes of Ruffed Grouse show a pattern of pretty obvious black and white barring on the sides."
In a macabre note: On our actual Breeding Bird Survey a week later, I was hoping to see that Sooty Grouse on our route. But we went past the area where we had seen the above bird with no grouse in sight. However, a bit later on the route, we came to this sordid sight by the side of the road, between two of our stops...
Clearly a Ruffed Grouse. How it came to be hanging by its neck from a tree limb is anybody's guess. Foresters call them "Fool Hens" and say if you walk all the way around a stump that a Fool Hen is sitting on, it will watch you and twist its own neck off in the process. Now, I don't think this Fool Hen wrapped its own neck around a limb watching something, but it's hard to imagine a bird of prey managing such a feat after killing the grouse. Some sicko human hanging it after hitting it with his car? Anyone have other ideas? Here's a cropped version showing the neck wrapped around the limb.
There were some down feathers right next to the road, a few feet from the tree. We did not have time to do more than take a couple of quick photos since we were on our BBS route which is tough to finish in the allotted time even without stopping to gander at hanging grouse.
Larry McQueen replied:
"It looks like the head-neck got caught in a fork while flying."